Sunday, October 26, 2014

Climbs to Crush Your Soul: Hincapie Gran Fondo 2014

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Blue Ridge Mountains
Cold start this morning, but otherwise the perfect day to ride - sunny and dry. The ride down from Cleveland to Greenville, South Carolina was breathtakingly beautiful, and now we had a chance to ride the same luscious terrain.

Tiffany and I lined up with the other 2000 riders starting the Hincapie Gran Fondo, at George Hincapie's own 'Hotel Domestique'. Lots of pro cyclists rumored to be here today.

Ride start: Gorgeous, rolling hills. We started to warm up quickly, but stupid issues arose immediately. I was unable to clip in to either pedal (dirt from walking across the parking lot clogged my cleat mechanism). Lost time monkeying with that. Thankful for the rolling sag support, hot guys on bikes who would come to your aid and help where needed. The guy who helped me tried cleaning my cleat while we were both still riding, I was feeling rather pro!

Then Tiffany flatted, first time in 100 years. We had only gone about 10 miles. I turned back to help her, but the Mavic guy was already there to offer assistance, adjust a loose rear break (YIKES), pump up her tires, and get her on the road again.

We lost time. We were hustling to make the first cut-off, after which we would be re-routed to the shorter course. We reached the first rest stop in what we thought was minutes to spare. We very quickly dropped some clothes, picked up teammate David N, re-fueled. Back on the road, skin of our teeth!

Up ahead, course marshals turning everyone left, although blinking sign clearly said 'LONG ROUTE -->'. I caught up with Tiffany, told her that we had just been re-routed. She went ballistic. There were others in the same predicament, but we were adamant that we should ride the long course (we weren't slow, we just had some mechanical issues).  No one stopped us.

View from the top of Skyuka Mountain 
The first climb of the Gran Fondo route is the KOM (King/Queen of the Mountain) timed Mt. Skyuka. Description in the ride program: 4 miles, 1800 ft elevation gain, average grade 8.7%. I was in my easiest gear the entire time, my Campy shifting clacking like a roller coaster up that enormous grade. Switchback after switchback with no let up at all. Signs along the road told us how many more km to the summit, and the current elevation gain. These signs were not helpful.

At the steepest turns, volunteers cheered on riders. Tiffany told me later that when she heard cheering somewhere up ahead/above, she knew to brace herself for the sudden change in grade, from steep to son-of-a-bitch steep.  But, really, the entire climb was a bitch.
Selfie on Skyuka
Tiffany at the summit
My kind of day/climb!

Me and David ready to bomb the descent

At the summit, the reward was an amazing birds-eye view of the North Carolina mountains, just starting to turn fall colors. Jaw-dropping, and worth the effort. My kind of day! After a few quick photos, we were ready for the descent.

One helluva descent

We caught up with teammates Tom and Steve, and we all started the crazy drop into the valley. The descent came with many warnings. High speed, tight turns, sheer drop-offs, burning brakes. It was relentless, the trickiest descent I've ever done. Grateful for the perfect weather today. The descents didn't exactly allow us the opportunity to make up any time, and we knew that we were going to be cutting it close as we got to the next cut-off point.  Loved this descent, in spite of my white knuckles.

The second featured climb was Howard Gap. Program description: 1.4 miles, 824 feet of elevation gain, average grade 11.4%. My description: soul crushing. Hate to admit it, but I had to walk. I gave it everything I had, keeping a steady, work-ethic bee-line through all the riders up ahead of me doing the 'paperboy' slalom just to stay upright and moving. When I got to the point where I, too, started to swerve all over the road, I opted instead to clip out and walk. Walking was faster, nobody passed me. Felt like I was pushing a mighty weight uphill for almost half a mile. I clipped in when the road flattened enough to get back up in the saddle (maybe only 8%?) but there was yet another steep switchback and a little more climbing left to do on this bitch.

At the top, I waited for my teammates. The volunteer there told me that he had once climbed Luz Ardiden, a hallowed Tour de France climb in the Pyrenees that is rated as HC, or hors categorie, in TdF standards. HC means that the climb is so tough, it can't be rated.  He told me that this climb up Howard Gap was much more difficult then Luz Ardiden, and that we should be proud that we made it this far. Oh, and by the way, some bad news: we missed the second cut-off point, and would be re-routed to the shorter course.

Ugly: 6500 feet of climbing in under 60 miles

At this point in the ride, I was totally cooked. My legs felt like jello. My attitude was beginning to take a nose-dive. The news that Howard Gap would be my last climb today - and that we were done climbing now - couldn't have made me happier!  Tiffany was disappointed, for about 3 minutes. The remaining miles went from some easy rollers - which felt like hell, at this point, to a final 5 mile descent back to the finish line.

Had we been inside the first cut-off time, we probably would have been able to finish the entire 80-mile Gran Fondo route, but I'm not sure how happy we would be to do it. Super Beast Tom C. finished it, telling us about the last climb that was purported to be the easiest of the 3 featured climbs, but still offered up a 7.5% grade over 2.4 miles and 17 switchbacks!
Tom C after finishing all 80 miles of Gran Fondo!

As we slogged through the final miles, I kept thinking that I'll probably not come out here again for this ride. Of course, on the 9 1/2 hour drive home, that tune changed a little, and Tiffany and I may have been plotting a strategy for next year.

A couple of final thoughts about the Hincapie Gran Fondo:

  • Aside from the Mighty Tom, who slipped beneath the 2nd cutoff time and finished the entire Gran route (80 miles), I and the rest of my teammates finished with 6550 feet of climbing in just under 60 miles. Although we didn't finish as intended, I would say that this was a pretty good day in the saddle.
  • It would have been nice to meet some of the pro cyclists, but we never saw them. By the time we got back to Hotel Domestique, we were hot, tired, in need of a shower, looking for food (which had run out hours before we got back), and in danger of camping out at the free beer tent all night. But we had to ride back to our cars, which were 4 miles away. And so the thoughts of having to pull some strings to get us an audience with The Man Himself just didn't seem at all appealing at the time.
  • Anyone who thinks that Lance Armstrong shouldn't be allowed to attend the Gran Fondo needs to just shut up and get a life. Those of us who paid good money to enter this event would have been plenty happy to bump elbows with Lance. 
  • Even though we weren't able to complete the entire Gran route, we will still be, as one volunteer noted as we were slogging up one of these hills, the top 1% of the population of the US in fitness. Hell yeah we are. 
David N, me, Tiffany, and Steve D at the after-party

Tired and happy after our ride! Mostly tired. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Series of Fortunate Accidents

Except for that I was riding my bike when the following event happened, this post is a complete diversion from my usual subject matter.

Mary and Raven on the night I bumped into her on the Towpath

I was coming back from a late afternoon ride, an easy spin through the early golds and reds of fall. One of those days when you lose yourself in the moment. Lots of traffic on the trail tonight, but for some reason it didn't bother me. Up ahead, I saw a woman walking a black dog, and as I got closer, I recognized the dog as a Belgian Sheepdog. Not a super-common breed around here, but since I have two of my own, I had to stop to chat.

We made small talk. She introduced me to Raven, who had a grizzly white muzzle,  just like my old dog. In a flash, she and I were kindred spirits, this woman and I, and her dog. She told me that just last night, she had to put down her other dog, an old male who was suffering some health issues. Raven, the dog left behind, was missing her companion.
And that is when I looked into the woman's eyes, and I recognized her immediately.

Some back story first.

This is how I met Mary: Some 15 years ago, my husband and I lived in a condo with ready access to the Hike and Bike trail. I walked my two 'boys' on that trail every day, without fail. At that time, my dogs were young - Tahoe was an 'adolescent', and Durango was still a lanky, floppy puppy.

It was on one of these daily walks that I was mildly alarmed by a sudden eruption from one of the houses whose backyards opened on to the trail. This crazy woman was running at us, waving her arms and yelling something I couldn't quite make out.  Mary, if memory serves, was very pregnant, possibly in a nightgown, and absolutely effusive over my dogs. She told me that she saw us walking every day, and the boys caught her attention and now she had a million questions: what breed were they, were they nice dogs, could we talk, etc. This is how we became acquainted, Mary and I, and we stayed more or less in touch even after we both moved out of that neighborhood. We wanted more space for ourselves and our dogs, Mary needed room for her growing family. And, as it turned out, for her own BSDs. We visited Mary years later, when her son was maybe 5 years old and she had just brought her second BSD into her life. (For some reason, BSDs often come in pairs).

Years went by and we lost touch, but every once in a while her name would pop up in unexpected places. A funeral guest list, for example. A twisting and complex connection with a relative. Weird stuff, and maybe it was a premonitory sign. But we never re-united.

Tough to resist that face, no?

Side story: Aleron Dogs
For some ungodly reason, my husband had/has been following a Belgian Sheepdog breeder on Facebook. Aleron Dogs, out of Youngstown, Ohio, has been chronicling the lives of their recent litter of puppies. We watched them go from blind little piglets to fuzzy black puffballs to their latest state of how can anything be so-freaking-cute. We watched them grow into their own personalities. I won't lie: the thought of bringing a third dog into my home crossed my mind. It was a brief moment of insanity, and I'm glad the moment is gone. But that didn't stop me from keeping an eye on which of these puppies found homes, and which were still available. *

The Confluence of Chance:
Why was Mary walking on the towpath at the exact same time I was riding it? Why was it that I bumped into her not one day after she had to put her older dog down?  How was it that I was closely following Aleron and knew that at that moment they were actively seeking homes for their puppies?

I have to tell you, I don't believe in miracles, or any sort of cosmic 'plan', for that matter. I absolutely don't believe in a supreme intelligence that guides any direction or creates serendipity. But I like to think that there's something to this story, some vibe that traveled between points of energy and maybe, on a completely unconscious level,  recognized in each other the ability to put a few small pieces together to create something.

Something bigger than the sum of those pieces.
Tuscan, the newest member of Mary's family

(Suggested soundtrack for Mary and Tuscan, click here:

*Belgian Sheepdog disclaimer: This is NOT a dog you want to own. They are TROUBLE. They are quirky, energetic beyond belief, too smart for their own good (and their owners, mostly), and they are non-stop interaction. This is not a dog you want if you want a dog that is laid-back and easygoing. Like any sheepdog, BSDs need something to do ALL THE TIME. And they are not satisfied doing things by themselves, or even with other dogs in their family. They are amazingly needy and, let's be honest, a total pain in the ass.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Barreling through Kentucky: The 2014 Bourbon Chase

The distillery tour guide poured another splash of amber liquid into my glass, and I was thinking that maybe today I would gain an appreciation for the official state drink of Kentucky.

"This here bourbon is our top of the line, barrel-aged 28 years. It sells for $400 a bottle, if we had any bottles left to sell. But we don't.  So you're lucky to get a taste of it. Swirl it around and take a sniff, but don't drink it yet."

A rich aroma of caramel, and vanilla, and a hint of butterscotch filled my nose. And the unmistakable vapor of turpentine.

"OK, now take a little taste."

I held it in my mouth, as directed, waiting for the flavors to open up and blossom on my tongue. I swallowed, trying not to cringe from the burn. I concentrated on what I was tasting. Sure enough, it was turpentine.

"Pour in just a couple drops of water, now taste it again." (Only filtered, pure, reverse-osmosis water need apply).

Diluted turpentine? Really, though, I couldn't tell a difference. I have to believe that my palate is not cut out for the nuances of bourbon. It's disappointing.

I was in the Heavenhill Tasting Room with half of my Bourbon Chase team, 'The Bourbon Chafes'. There were 10 of us running the 200-mile length of Kentucky's Bourbon Trail, which takes a meandering route from Louisville to Lexington, hitting all the major bourbon distilleries along the way.

We had just come from the start line at the Jim Beam distillery, where our lead runner recently took off for the first leg of this 36-leg journey. The team was divided 5 and 5, in two different vans, and Van 2 AKA Disco Daddy (the one I was in) had some time to kill before we got going in late afternoon. Naturally, we spent that time sampling bourbon. And avoiding the rain.

I'm not sure what I was thinking when I jumped at the chance to join this team. I love to run, and I'm finding that I'm gravitating more to running events that challenge me.  I think I was drawn to the culture around the Bourbon Chase: the silliness, the scenery, the promise of a fun-loving team (any friend of Brenda's, my Summit Freewheeler teammate who invited me along, was sure to be a blast), and, of course, the jaw-dropping Kentucky landscape. And maybe even the bourbon.

What I wasn't ready for were the hills, the rain, the challenge of running in the dark and in the middle of the night and in a sleep-deprived state. I hadn't factored in how my legs would feel having to run multiple legs of the route (including an extra one I hadn't planned on), without a lot of recovery time in between, or what I would do if it rained during every run and now I had no dry clothes to change into. My Bourbon Chase experience reminded me a LOT of my RAAM experience, complete with the whole communal sleeping arrangements (translation: no sleep), living out of a gym bag and in a space-constrained van (although I was allowed to bring a French press, even though I never had a chance to use it), and coordinating hand-offs with team members. The difference here was that I was just a runner in this event, not a crew member or a coordinator. All I had to do was get set down on the road when it was my time to run, and then run until I was told to stop. Super easy.

And run I did. Over leg-scorching hills and twisty 'hollers' opening up onto tobacco fields; along highway shoulders with ankle-deep puddles from the never-ending rain; through pitch darkness with unearthly moo-ing echoing from the abyss; with my only motivation being a tiny red bouncing dot somewhere far in front of me indicating another runner, and presumably I was not lost.

We ran all day and all night for 29 hours and 22 minutes, crossing the drizzly finish line in Lexington and heading straight to the after-party.

I didn't really know my teammates before I signed up. I was immediately struck by the fact that everyone was a gifted athlete and determined to do this thing, but even more than that, everyone had a killer sense of humor and there was an instant rapport that carried us through from start to finish.   Aside from the rare times we were crashed out in Disco Daddy, we were laughing non-stop. My teammates were an interesting mix of ultra runners, trail runners, ultra trail runners, at least 5 runners who claimed that they hated running, at least 3 triathletes, one swimmer, and some non-runners who were there to drive and navigate. Team Captain Andy was a logistics genius, predicting our finishing time to within 17 minutes of our clock time. We all hit it off immediately, and that was the coolest thing about this race. Unlike a lot of competitive events I've done over the years, this one truly felt like we were all there to have a good time, and so we did.

The Bourbon Chase is one of those events that, while I'm really glad to have been a part of it, is a one-and-done kind of ordeal.  Like my appreciation for bourbon, long distance running must be an acquired taste or, more likely, you have to be wired for it.

Back home on Sunday, after a full night's sleep and a steamy hot shower, I decided to give bourbon another chance. I found a recipe for a bourbon drink that included a little lime, a little cranberry, and a splash of simple syrup. It smelled like heaven, and it didn't burn as it kicked my ass into a sweet oblivion.

Maybe I can learn to like this stuff.

Disco-themed costume, or bad taste in running apparel?


This is what a $400 bottle of bourbon looks like
Bourbon tasting

Distilleries dot the hillsides everywhere

The After-Party
Andy, Adrienne, and I at Heavenhill

Big thank you to my teammates: Andy and Adrian, Dawn and Larry, Megan, Eric, Matt, Joe, Brenda and Ryan, Sara, and Cathleen! (And I stole their photos and video, too...)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Tim Marks rides into the 508 Hall of Fame!

Chapeau, my friend!

What are you gonna do next year?


Geiger grade, descent into Reno, NV. Probably as mind-bending for Tim's stellar support crew (driving close enough to keep him in the headlights of the vehicle) as it was for him to descend through the blackness.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Silver State 508

Anyone who has been following my blog knows that this is the 5th year that my friend and second-favorite riding partner, Tim Marks (Pileated Woodpecker) will be competing in the 508 race.

The 508, this year known as the Silver State 508 due to a venue change, begins on Sunday, Oct. 5th in Reno, NV and covers 510 miles and 20,000 feet of elevation.

Successful completion (the cut off is 48 hours) of this race will earn Tim a place in the 508 Hall of Fame.

I know you will do this, Tim, and I will be following you the whole way! I wish I could be there to see you cross that finish line.

Best of luck and only tailwinds to Tim and all my other friends racing the Silver State 508 this weekend: (George 'Red Eyed Vireo' Vargas, Lori 'Hutton's Vireo' Hoechlin, and Patrice 'Blue Frog' Pellerin).