Saturday, September 26, 2015

A lot tougher than I imagined

Team Hellhound crossed the finish line of the 2015 Silver State 508 with an official time of 33:43:35. That is well within our estimated time of 36 hours (and certainly within the cutoff of 46 hours), and it meets our goal of finishing in daylight - a critical parameter for both riders and crew, since having to go into a second night is a psychological killer.

I know some of you have mentioned that you were waiting for me to post some details about the race, but I've been trying to figure out how to do so without writing an entire book. Brevity can't be sacrificed here, although I'm sure that the stories from the race could last longer than the race itself. So, I'm going to divide this post into sections for easy access, but this will still be the longest entry I've ever written. If you want nuts and bolts about the race itself, I suggest getting all of that from the 508 website.

And, of course, I'll be telling the story from my point of view, knowing that my Hellhound teammate and crew probably have some great stories that I may not even know about yet. I invite them (Tim,  Jill, Corrine) to add to this narrative as they see fit.

OK, here goes:

The route:
The 2015 Silver State 508 is an out-and-back from Reno, NV to Eureka, NV. It's mostly Highway 50, the so-called 'Loneliest Highway in America' except for the double tractor trailers hauling tons of fresh-cut lumber and barreling down it at 90 mph in the middle of the night. And plenty of other unsavory characters that made me question the definition of 'lonely'.

Total elevation gain was 20,000 feet, which doesn't sound like all that much over the course of 510 miles except that these weren't 'rolling' climbs. These were long, relatively flat stretches followed by abrupt mountain ranges that averaged about 8% grade. The terrain was everything from city streets to  winding two-lane mountain passes to long, flat open desert. Wild animals roamed all over the place: herds of pronghorn antelope and wild horses, jackrabbits, coyotes, even free-range cattle to make fast descents interesting.

The stages:
As a two-person team, we were required to ride specific stages of the race, all of which ended at a Time Station. We carried a GPS tracking device for accurate split timing; this we had to pass back and forth to each other during rider hand-offs, kind of like a relay 'baton'.

Tim rode Stages 1, 3, 5, and 7, and I took the even-number Stages. This was his choice: he didn't want to ride Stage 8's famed/feared Six-Mile Canyon climb. He's 'been there, done that' and thought it would be funny to make me do it. Truthfully, I think his stages were tougher than mine, although he (and everyone else in this race) had me dreading that last climb almost before I started the race.

Our goals:
As I mentioned in an earlier post, our main goal was simply to finish the race. Ever since I saw Tim's first 508 jersey hanging prominently in his house, I wanted one on my own wall! The vision of that jersey kept me going where I was starting to falter.

A week or so before the race, Jill and I calculated a desired ride time. We estimated about a 15 mph average speed over the course of the route, which is conservative but takes into account things like bad weather, strong headwinds, crappy roads, high heat. We built in an additional 'fudge factor' for things like time spent at rider handoff (which we were determined to keep to a minimum), stop lights, flat tires (we had none!), mid-ride breaks, and other things that might slow us down. With this estimate and the 8 AM Saturday start time for relay teams,  we calculated that we would be done racing by 8:30 PM on Sunday night. We didn't say it often, but our desire was to smash that goal so we would finish before 6 PM Sunday (or, in other words, before we had to put our lights back on the bike for night riding).

The '15 mph average' was based on Tim's prior finishing times, as a solo rider over the course of 510 miles. I was certain that we would be able to do better than that as a two-person team, and I had an individual goal of finishing my stages at an average speed of 17 mph. I'm pleased to say that I met that goal, even with some trouble I had toward the end (keep reading!).

Our crew and the importance of crew support:
Jill Marks takes care of every detail. She has had plenty of experience crewing for all of Tim's 508 races and training rides, plus two Race Across America's. I let her direct everything off the bike, including what I packed, where I put stuff in the van, how much food to pack, etc.  Corrine was brand new to crewing, but she proved the perfect compliment to this team and quickly became a pro at rider support.

Between Jill and Corrine, there was always a cold bottle of something at the ready, or an ice-cream sandwich or hot chocolate after ending a long ride. There was a bag of ice for my sore feet after my 113 mile slog through rough road and blazing sun.  They had to follow us riders in some capacity (leap frog or direct follow) day and night, make sure there was plenty of ice in the cooler, keep the van fueled up night and day. These gals were the definition of self-sacrifice for the weekend, and I appreciate them like crazy.

There's a new category of racers this year, the solo randonneur division. I don't know how 508 riders are able to do this unsupported, and to emphasize this point, every solo randonneur I saw along the way looked like death warmed over. More power to them, but I think they're out of their minds.

The ride details:
This is where I get to crunch numbers and try to remember details! And, of course, the stories get better with time so ask me again later if you want a more entertaining narrative.

The Starting Line/Stage 1 (Tim):
We gather at the Atlantis Casino in downtown Reno to see Tim and the other relay teams off. It's sunny but cool, and I'm REALLY NERVOUS. I want this race to start already. Tim rides the first 50 or so miles while I get to freak out in the van waiting for my turn.

Stage 2 (Me):
MY TURN! I'm on the road and waiting for the handoff, jumping out of my skin. When I get the tracking device, Tim sends me off and I ride my shortest, easiest stage (31 miles, 266 feet of gain) like it's a time trial. An hour and a half later, I'm back in the van and settling in for a long stretch of rest before I get to ride again. Once I'm on the bike, all that nervousness and anxiety goes away. When I finish the ride, I'm now all business: figuring timing, anticipating what I'll need for my next stage. Totally into the groove.

Stage 3 (Tim): Tim's longest stage at 106 miles, and at 5000 feet of gain, the most climbing of any of the 8 stages. I really think he gets the hard stages, in spite of his insistence that Stage 8 is the real bitch. He seems to get all the 'good' climbs, too: the long, luxurious mountain passes, and in daylight.

By my calculations, he'll be on the road for about 7 hours, and will ride until nightfall. I change out of my kit, stage everything I need for my upcoming night ride, set up lights on my bike, and then try to rest. It's hard to rest, though, because the world outside is so beautiful and I want to cheer my teammate up some of the climbs.

Stage 4 (Me): It's 8:00 PM and pitch black when I finally get back on the bike. It's cold, too. There are a million stars in the sky, and I take a moment for awe, to remember where I am and why I'm here and how I got here and to be practically overwhelmed by all of it. I'm waiting for Tim to finish on an incline in Austin, NV, then I'll start the first 3 miles of this 70 mile stage by a steady climb out of the city and into desolation. The rest of my team has called in a pizza for pickup from the International Cafe in Austin, and they have sent me on ahead. I told them don't hurry - I've got a ways to go and I'm feeling great.

Typically, during night hours, support vehicles must stay close enough behind their rider that the rider can navigate in the light of the van's headlights. But on this race, direct follow isn't allowed on the eastbound route because the road is too narrow to accommodate this tactic in both directions. No matter - we all have powerful lights on our bikes and we can see everything.

And I find that I REALLY like night riding. Except for the super-scary lumber trucks sharing this windy road with me, there's not much of anything out here but me and my bike. The light from my headlight illuminates the fog line and big, suicidal jackrabbits. The shadow caused by my light makes it feel like there's something big and ominous running alongside me. I sense, rather than see, shapes of coyotes and other dog-like predators, but I don't feel fear at all. The darkness creates a cocoon around me. I can't see beyond the right edge of the road, where I ride, and anything beyond the yellow center line to my left. I imagine that I'm riding along a sheer cliff drop into blackness, but it could just as well have been a big, open desert. I'll never know.

I ride through pockets of cold, then pockets of warm, then into cold again until the cold doesn't go away. I keep a steady pace, think of nothing and everything, keep aware of my thirst, my hunger, if I'm cold or warm. I don't look at mileage, but I do glance at time every once in a while. The stage goes by fast until I'm close to Eureka, the turnaround point. For some reason, it starts to feel like a slog (I find out later that it's an uphill finish, but in the darkness I couldn't tell). The wind picks up and I'm fighting against it, my least favorite thing to do.  When I finally reach Eureka around 1:00 AM Sunday morning, Corrine hands me a hot chocolate - so delicious! - and I shed wet clothes in the back of the van as my crew gets Tim on the road. We are now at the halfway point of this race: 255 miles covered, 255 more to go!

Stage 5 (Tim):
Since we're now at the turnaround and heading west, back to Reno, 'direct follow' is required. This means that my crew has to stay close enough behind Tim to keep him in their headlights. This is for safety of the rider more than for visibility, since our headlights are fine for the job. Corrine and Jill trade off driving duties, keeping the rider close but with enough room to maneuver if the rider happens to crash. It's scary, especially since we've now been on the road for 17+ hours and everyone's a bit tired. And there are sharp descents, and godawful slow climbs. I have about 4.5 hours to rest (Stage 5 is 70 miles), and to re-fuel. Problem is, I don't feel hungry, and nothing that we have to eat sounds appealing (not even the leftover pizza from the International Cafe). I choke down Perpetuem and re-hydrate, knowing that my two hardest stages are still ahead of me.

Stage 6 (Me):
We are ahead of schedule. My calculated timeline predicted that I'd be back on the bike by 7 AM, but here it is not quite 5:30 AM (and a COLD 26ish degrees) and I'm back at it. This is my longest stage, 113 miles that will take me over the delicious Carroll Summit before hitting a 22-mile descent into Fallon. I'm having some gut issues but nothing that I can't deal with, although I'm forced to choke down whatever I can (only Perpetuem, which is starting to taste disgusting) in order to keep the fuel stores up.

I shed clothes as I gain daylight and elevation. Once on the road to the Carroll Summit I'm hitting my stride, warmed up. As Jill noted in her Facebook post, 'she's only happiest when she's climbing'! By the way, I am so grateful for Jill's ability to drive, navigate, take care of her riders, take care of her crew, socialize with and encourage other 508 teams, and keep the fans back home updated on Hellhound progress! I'm not sure how she does it, but she's definitely got some talent!

I don't remember a lot about this stage (I can sense my readers are happy about this!). After the climb, there was a fast descent, then a long, brutal slog on a roughly-paved road through a never-ending salt pan under a blistering, brutal sun and with heavy truck traffic. I changed the name of Highway 50 at this point to 'the Most Obnoxious Highway in America', and I couldn't wait for it to end. I had to stand up every now and again to relieve the pain/pressure on my feet and ass, and to stretch my tired calves and quads. I watched the big trucks, the ones that thought it might be a good idea to run me off the road, as they disappeared into the distance. I was hoping to see them turn away from this godawful salt pan, which, in my mind, meant that Fallon was close.

Going into this race, I knew that there would be times that I would lose my focus, wish for an end/death, want to throw in the towel. But you know, that really didn't happen, although it was at this point in Stage 6 that I came close to my one and only WTF moment. And it didn't have anything to do with long miles or long climbs, but with that freaking never-ending salt pan.

By the time I finished, Jill had set me up with a bag of ice to soothe my achy feet. I grabbed an ice cream sandwich (my only solid food since the night before), and opted to stay in my kit for my last stage of riding, since my break would be pitifully short. I told Tim to slow down on this, his last stage, but I knew he was almost delirious with the thought that he would soon be finished with his race.

Stage 7 (Tim): 
Tim is practically giddy. I've never seen him so happy to be on a bike. He will tell me later that the relay riders who were lined up with him at the start of this stage were also in party mode. Fuckers. They only have 27 miles left, and it's a relatively easy stage. Very little climbing, but it's high noon and the trucks are in full force, and the wind is starting to pick up. We leapfrog him to the next Time Station. At this point, my body is probably done, but my mind won't have anything to do with that. All I allow myself to think about is pulling into the parking lot of the Atlantis Casino and being handed that finisher's jersey - and in daylight, too.

While walking out of the mini-mart with my ice cream sandwich, one of the gals from Team Hellcat 4X is looking pretty pissed off. She's telling me how she had to do Stage 8 last year, and how she had to stop every few minutes on the climb and how she had to make a second attempt at the steepest section. I'm trying not to let this information get under my skin, because it doesn't really matter. I'm going to do whatever it takes to get up this climb in the most expedient manner possible.

Stage 8 (Me):
I'm ready to start. Tim rolls up, puts the tracker in my back pocket, and tells me not to listen to anything I've heard about Six Mile Canyon. I'm assuming he means that I shouldn't listen to all the smack he, himself, has been telling me about it from the day I agreed to do this race. His words are meant to encourage: "You will have no trouble on this climb".  I allow these words to penetrate my subconscious, along with all the other great words of wisdom that friends and teammates doled out on me for this race, especially the ones from George Liolios: "Pain is temporary, pride is forever." Let's get this thing done!

The race book tells me that the first 20 miles or so of this 47 mile stage is 'fast and flat', a real time trial start. To which I'm thinking, MY ASS IT IS! With 210 miles on my legs, a blistering sun above me, and a headwind that feels like a blast furnace, I'm not exactly in TT mode. But, I do pass the Hellcat, and that buoys me up a bit. I reach the turnoff to Six Mile Canyon, and shortly after I begin my climb. My throat is parched, but the thought of more of my Nuun hydration, no matter how icy cold, makes me want to gag. I take a swig anyway.

The climb starts. You know, this really isn't so bad. All the climbs on this race, all of them, feel familiar. Carroll Summit felt like Hell's Gate, the climb out of Austin felt like Amaragosa Opera House climb. None of the climbs here were as brutal as some of the ascents that were part of the Hincapie Gran Fondo, in South Carolina, last year, and I kept that in mind as I snaked up Six Mile. Six Mile, by the way, felt like Santa Monica - but, of course, with a couple hundred miles on them.

I was in my glory! Keeping a steady pace and channeling my inner Shawn Aker, I kept my cadence high and intensity low and steady. I even passed other riders. The Hellhound van would pass me, my team cheering me on and Tim, looking pretty darn rested, would thank me - again - for being here. It made me laugh every single time. Corrine told me that I had only 1.7 miles to the top, which surprised the hell out of me and boosted my adrenaline rush even further. The finish line was looking really, really close!

Close to where the road tips up for a final 21% ass-whooping, I unclipped and pulled over to give my legs a brief respite. That's when all the bad stuff happened.

As soon as I put a foot down on the ground, my head started spinning and a tidal wave of nausea hit me. What the hell?? I got off the bike, dry heaved, sat down and tried to get the blood back to my head. My support crew was there with cold drinks and fuel, but I refused it all. I figured anything I took in at that point wasn't going to stay with me, anyway, I just needed a moment to regroup.

Not sure how long that 'moment' lasted, but finally I asked for my Tevas, and began walking up the steepest pitch. Tim walked with me, probably hoping to get me to move faster but I would stop under every shady tree to catch my breath. I felt like hell but I had to keep moving.

Toward the top of the climb, at Virginia City, the road widens out a bit and the climb becomes more reasonable. I opted to get on and ride from here, knowing that after this final few miles of climbing there would be the Geiger Grade descent. He warned me against riding this part of the route, and particularly the descent, if I still felt dizzy but I assured him I would keep that in mind but that I would probably be fine.

Geiger Grade: 10 miles of 8% descent. Two lanes, switchbacks, killer views of Reno way, way down in the valley below. I was on the brakes the whole time, trying to stay in control of my speed and my focus. Sunday afternoon tourists were racing back from Virginia City after a long afternoon of gambling and liquor. Did I mention that I started thinking that Route 50 is probably not the safest route in America?

Let me cut to the chase: The descent seemed to take forever, and my hands were going numb for constantly having to squeeze the brakes. Soon afterward, I was in Reno proper, the only thing left to do was navigate the city streets to Atlantis. One small climb and a trip through a sprinkler system, a stop at a traffic light and there was Hellcat, then one more turn and there was the Atlantis. And the finish, and my teammate crossing the line with me.

There was the jersey, the medal, the photo shoot. There was my entire team, elated and relieved and ready to call it a day and happy that we could all go home in daylight. There was Georganna to cheer us on, and our friends and fellow competitors celebrating their own successes. I sat on the curb, the symptoms I experienced on Six Mile coming back in full force now that I no longer had to hold it all together.

If I could re-do any of this race, it would be the very end (and maybe Six Mile Canyon, which I honestly think would have made my top ten list of fave climbs under different circumstances). I would re-live the pride I felt, the sense of accomplishment, the celebration of a true team effort. Instead, it was all I could do to haul my depleted carcass back to the hotel, where I showered and crashed and didn't wake up again until late into that first night, well past any celebrating I had hoped to do with Jill and Tim at the hotel bar. But when I did wake up, I knew that, somehow, something about me was changed forever.

Before this race started, I knew that this would be a 'one and done' event for me. I still feel that way, and for many reasons. The training leading up to it is all-consuming; I don't have the attention span to go through this again. And, as everyone knows, I'm more of a 'speed' girl than a distance rider, which was glaringly evident when I was up against all of the other 508 competitors. Without exception, these were all double-century types, people who log their week's training in miles, not hours. These are the people who, upon completion of a race like the 508, immediately start thinking about what they're going to do different next year to improve their time. Like Tim. I don't have that in me, mainly because having to be on a bike all day is just not appealing to me. Or maybe I'm just addicted to the instant gratification of shorter races! Call me shallow.

So, I'm going back to short-distance races. I'm happy to have finished the 508 (and I got my jersey!), but I'm switching my focus back to the kinds of races and events that fit better with my sensibilities. Any talk of a repeat of this race is just silly, or alcohol induced.

But I have to admit this: after being home barely one day, I suddenly figured out why someone might want to do this again. I thought about all the hard work and time and sacrifice that goes into this event, and the ordeal of the race itself.  As miserable as it was, at times, it made the return to all this 'real life' stuff seem incredibly mundane. It's kind of funny, because while I was grinding through my 20-hour training weeks, I would think about all the things I would do once the race was over and I didn't have to spend so many hours training.  And now that I have that time back, I wonder why I wanted to trade in a perfectly grueling 20-hour training week for anything so, well, ordinary.

Tim claims that this was his last 508. I'm sure the super-long training rides in the hills of Wisconsin every Saturday were starting to get a little old, for both Tim and for Jill. At some point, when you find that you don't have the same hunger for the same goals, it's time to move on to something else.  This is a concept I understand completely. I hope that Tim finds a worthy substitute for the 508, because I know how this thing has defined him over the years since we met back in 2010, in Death Valley.

Back in June, when I told Tim and Jill that I would ride with Tim in a 2x team, I figured I was doing him a favor. Tim couldn't stand the idea of not competing in this, his Hall of Fame inaugural year (granted to 5-time finishers of the 508) but he was losing interest in the amount of suffering required to ride this as a solo racer. I thought that the team effort would be a lot easier (I think it was) and that he would be able to offload some of the pain and angst onto his teammate.

Jill tells me that this was destiny, that this 2x team thing had been in the works since we met back in Death Valley that first time. I think she's onto something. I was always intrigued by the 508, but never to the point that I would enter it as a solo competitor. I decided early on that I would never do this race, but if I did, I would only do it as part of a relay team with Tim.

Which means, looking back on this, that I really DIDN'T do this race as a favor to Tim.

He did it for me.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

This road we travel...

The 2015 edition of the Silver State 508 starts in a couple of hours for Team Hellhound, and all the other relay teams. It's been a long and interesting journey just to get to the starting line, and I couldn't be more ready to get going.

On the evening that we arrived in Reno, as we were setting up our bikes at Corrine's house, I got word that 5 cyclists were hit by a pickup truck as they were riding down Snowville Rd, in Brecksville. One of them, Matthew Billings, died at the scene. 3 others are in serious or critical condition. One was released from the hospital, and I don't know his condition.

It was the Akron Bike Club's regular Thursday night ride. I know all these people, and have ridden with most of them. And, of course, Snowville is one of my favorite climbs in the Cuyahoga Valley, although my relationship with this hill will likely be changed forever.

We do what we do because we love to do it. We know that there are risks involved, but we justify them because of the benefits of our sport. We always expect that the ride will end, we look forward to that hot shower and cold beer, and the satisfaction of a good ride. We plan on doing it again tomorrow.

I rode around Reno yesterday, a short test ride for bike and legs. I was keenly aware of traffic and the behavior of motorists. I was keenly aware of my own behavior, because we always have to ride with eyes wide open. We need to be able to react as best we can when the situation requires it.

This 508 race is challenging on so many levels that I often forget (or try to forget) that I'm on a highway, with other fast-moving traffic. My job is to stay alert, stay safe, and live to tell about the journey. But I also know that sometimes I really don't know the road I'm travelling.

Please keep the Billings family, and those fellow cyclists still fighting for their lives, in your thoughts. I'm sure I will be thinking of all of them over the next couple of days during my long rides on 'The Loneliest Highway in America.'

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

My 508 Adventure Begins!

Let's get this show on the road, already!

Introducing Team Hellhound:

Tim Marks (Pileated Woodpecker):5 time solo 508 finisher, which earns him a place in the Hall of Fame
Pam Semanik (Hellhound): First/last time 508 competitor

Jill Marks - Crew Chief Extraordinaire. Crew experience includes all of Tim's races and training rides, as well as RAAM support both this year (Seana Hogan) and last year (Team Ohio Cycleworks Charities)
Corinne Casanova - Crew/Support/Beer Garden Reservations/party planner. Opened her home for our mega-shipments of bikes, equipment, etc. Can't wait to meet her!

I'm leaving Cleveland tomorrow morning, meeting up with Jill and Tim in Minneapolis and then we'll be flying into Sacramento together. By early afternoon, we'll be in Reno and putting our bikes together at Corinne's house. Tomorrow and Friday we get ready; the race starts at 8 AM on Saturday.

I'm terrified and excited and wondering if I'm prepared but ready to find out.

We have goals, of course, and in their most basic form look like this:
1. Survive
2. Finish before the cut-off time (46.5 hours for relay teams)

Of course, we have some other, slightly more lofty goals, but I'm not going to jinx myself by posting them all over the public domain. Those goals are based on ideal conditions and no freaky incidents.

If you want to follow us, or your other 508 faves, you can check out the 508 website's live feed:

Tim and Jill, Death Valley c. 2011

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Misery vs. Strength

"We can make ourselves miserable or we can make ourselves stronger. The amount of work is the same."
-Ken Emerson, 508 Veteran

Just realized that today is September 1st. Where did the time go? Seems it was just yesterday when I was talking to Jill about her crewing experience with Seana Hogan's team in this year's Race Across America. That was in mid-June, and the same day I decided I would do the 508, although I don't think I told Jill until a day or two later. I had to first run this past Dave.

Actual conversation with Dave:

Me: I'm thinking about doing the 508 with Tim this year.
Dave: THIS year?
Me: Yes. This may be my only chance. What do you think?
Dave: I think if you don't do this, you're going to regret it for the rest of your life.

Fast forward to...holy shit! Now. Staring this thing in the face. I'm not sure if I'm ready, but I'm not sure if anyone is ever ready for stuff like this.

If the 508 brings a lot of rain and cold weather, followed by excessive heat and humidity, then I think I'm good. This past week of training could easily be considered 'miserable' conditions. Training days have been not only taxing physically, but competitions with rush hour traffic, crappy road conditions, poor visibility, and, oh yeah, the coldest day in August this area has seen in the past 7 years, Not exactly a picnic, but I've ridden enough in the desert to know that things could be worse.

Someone once said that pain is just weakness leaving the body. (I wanted to smack that person). I can't say that I feel myself getting stronger, but I have felt plenty of 'weakness leaving my body' in recent days. So, with a couple of ridiculous training days left this week, and then settling into maintenance before the starting gun goes off on September 19th, I will trade up any misery for whatever benefit I can gain. Because if this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I want to savor every moment while it lasts.