On top of my usual nervousness before a big event, I went into the race fairly fatigued. The day before, I had helped with the Atlanta Metro chapter MATHCOUNTS competition. MATHCOUNTS is a nationwide middle school math competition program that I have volunteered with for years. I'm the state coordinator. The Atlanta Metro chapter has a new coordinator this year, and I didn't want to simply throw her to the sharks, especially considering that hers is the biggest chapter competition in the country! It went very well, but anything involving 300+ middle school students is an exercise in controlled chaos. I had a couple of long days helping prepare for and executing the competition, and then it took me three hours to get home Friday evening due to extra heavy Atlanta traffic. So, already stressed and revved up on adrenaline, I suppose I did well to get almost seven hours of sleep before the race.
In the morning I made the hourlong drive to the Blue Goose, a fantastic bike hostel in Irwinton, GA where the Middle Georgia Epic was staged.
|The Blue Goose now has a blue goose!|
I'm used to packing for long rides as compactly as possible, but still I was amazed at how few supplies I needed: my Garmin with the route uploaded, two large bottles of water mixed with Skratch Labs powder, and four Clif Bars. I stuck the unwrapped Clif Bars directly into my jersey pockets to minimize hassle during the race. I planned to stop only once, at the mandatory SAG halfway through the race, where I could refill my bottles. After checking in at registration, I was ready to race!
I enjoyed seeing teammates, rando buddies, and various cycling friends from Atlanta, Milledgeville, and Warner Robins. As we gathered at the starting line, my friend Jean gave me a big hug and said that she was doing the 100K. Whew! I had figured she would be some of my biggest competition in the 200K. But Anne was back. She beat me last year. She had also done a 12-hour race the previous weekend, and so I thought she might be even more formidable at this year's Middle Georgia Epic. Oh, well - I reminded myself that I was there to do my best, and at the very least, I would have a fun day on the bike.
We got our first taste of dirt about two miles into the course. The fastest guys pulled ahead very quickly, just as I anticipated. I rode at tempo, knowing that I shouldn't go too hard too early. It was going to be a long day.
The first little stretch of dirt didn't last long before we had another couple of miles of pavement. Several other riders and I started clumping together; maybe I wouldn't have to ride by myself all day after all. My cyclocross bike felt good under me, particularly with its brand-new chain, but something was making a creaking noise on every pedal stroke. I was embarrassed that it was likely annoying the other riders around me. I jiggled my shifters and brake levers, hoping to make the creaking stop. It didn't. hark! louder! louder! louder! louder! It was just like The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe.
Eventually, the creaking did subside. By the way, today before I wrote this race report, I pulled this out to reread The Tell-Tale Heart:
I found this gorgeous volume at a used book sale several years ago. The pages are edged in gold, and it's in mint condition. Quite a find for the approximately $2 I spent on it! Anyway, back to the race...
We were approaching what I knew would be the most challenging section of the race - six miles of heavily rutted dirt roads that are difficult even when it hasn't rained. As I turned off of the pavement, my riding companions continued straight. They didn't know about this short cut-through road, even though it was on the official route. I didn't have any illusions of staying ahead of them (including Anne!) for the whole race, but I didn't mind being on my own as I made my way through the tough section.
My friend Benny took some great photos of the route. This one shows some of the most technical part:
Dan Rather helped me get through this section. I'm not kidding! Recently I read his book What Unites Us, which I thoroughly enjoyed. One chapter is entitled "Steady," which is one of his favorite words. When he was a boy, Rather had rheumatic fever. His father comforted and encouraged him during the long recovery with the single word "steady." Rather also describes the reassuring steadiness of various U.S. and other world leaders during war and other troubled times.
I already knew that a steady pace is necessary to successfully complete an epic-length ride or race. "Steady" also helped me here to keep calm and ride on. Some of the muddy ruts on the racecourse were like mountain bike single-track. I'm not a very good technical rider, but I had to pick a line and go with it. I found that the key was to keep my momentum and to ride...steady.
I made it through the mud and got back to the pavement. I was approaching the end of the lollipop stick to make a big loop southward. See you again this afternoon, super-duper muddy section!
Shortly after I started the clockwise loop, here came my friend Jake - on his road bike! I had passed him on the muddy section when he was changing a flat. Jake is an excellent rider, but the unpaved sections proved too much for his choice of bicycle. I didn't get to draft off of him for very long before he got another flat. I would have been glad to give him one of my spare tubes, but the ones I use on my cyclocross bike are too big for skinny road bike tires.
Because the Middle Georgia Epic is about 75% on unpaved roads (including hard-packed dirt, loose sand, gravel, and of course mud) and 25% on paved roads (some good quality and some shake-and-bake), one tricky thing is selecting your type of bicycle. Do you ride a mountain bike? That gives you the most wheel clearance and, thus, the best chance of getting through the muddy sections as quickly as possible. However, a mountain bike is a lot slower on pavement. A road bike is faster on pavement but much more prone to flatting off-road, as Jake experienced. For me, a cyclocross bike is the best choice because it pretty much splits the difference on advantages and disadvantages.
A group of six or eight riders caught up to me, including my friend Andrew, Anne and her husband, another woman, and a few other guys. We had significant paved sections for a while. We started a rotating pace line, the perfect way to simultaneously maximize speed and conserve energy. It struck me how the Middle Georgia Epic encourages skills across several cycling sub-disciplines, from mountain biking to road riding. Nevertheless, it quickly became apparent that several in my group were not roadies because they didn't know how to execute a rotating paceline. They would surge as they got toward the front and then not fade back. Still, I've seen worse rotating pace lines.
The woman I didn't know introduced herself as Kay. She was so friendly, saying how good it was to see other women cyclists doing an event like this. I totally agree. She was riding very strong, and I could quickly discern that she was a force to be reckoned with for the day. Even more impressively, she told me that this was her first gravel/off-road race. I told her that she picked quite a challenging event for her first one! Kay said we should cross the finish line holding hands. I just laughed. I'm pretty Kum Ba Yah otherwise, but when it comes to games and sports - Trivia Night, cycling, etc. - I want to dominate! If Kay and I were still together at the end, I knew I would ride as fast across the finish line as my tired bones would allow. (Foreshadowing alert...)
We checked in as required at the SAG stop in Eastman, approximately halfway through. I was surprised that I didn't have to go to the bathroom; I would have to guard against getting too dehydrated. I ate a few bites of Clif Bar and nearly gagged. Then, when my riding companions started eating bagels spread with peanut butter and bacon, my stomach really turned. Normally, I would totally understand such an odd combination of ingredients, but I was uncharacteristically not hungry mid-race.
One guy hung back to have a mechanic look at his bike, and a few others we had been riding with had dropped off a little while before the SAG stop. Therefore, only Kay, two guys, and I continued on together.
A few miles before the stop, my eyes had started hurting from some dirt that got in them. It was difficult to see. I tried to let my eyes water, which often does the trick in the middle of a ride like this. It wasn't working this time. When we got back on the road after the SAG, my eyes felt worse than ever. I finally had to stop to rinse them out, letting the others continue. I knew that I probably would never catch up to Kay, but I had to alleviate the pain in my eyes.
A simple rinse didn't help the first and second times. Finally, I had to take my contacts out, storing them in one of my bottles with a little water still in it. (I've had to come up with solutions to problems on the bike before, but this was a first!) I put that bottle on the less accessible back bottle cage and decided to drink only out of my front bottle the rest of the day. After taking out my contacts, I obviously still couldn't see well, but at least I wasn't in pain anymore.
It was a unique experience to continue riding without my contacts. Fortunately, most of the roads, even the unpaved ones, weren't too big a challenge. I took in the beautiful sights in a rather dreamlike state on the warmish February afternoon. The sun shone blue-grey behind partly cloudy skies. Black Angus cows grazed in fields of rye. Even though their forms were indistinct, I still marveled at the lovely black and green contrast.
Allentown was just past 100 miles. I needed some more water and figured I could find a church with a spigot. Sure enough, there's a large church in downtown Allentown - no outdoor spigot, though. I didn't have any better luck at the fire station around the corner. Danville is only about a mile farther. The third time was the charm; I found a church in Danville with a spigot. (I was glad for the hose that made the spigot easier for me to spot in my semi-blind state.) The water wasn't exactly clear, but beggars can't be choosers.
I had about 20 miles to go. Those were the toughest. I had felt OK up until then, but fatigue began to set in. My mind was messing with me. Had I lollygagged too much? I started looking over my shoulder, expecting to see Anne coming up behind me. I tried to pick up my seemingly molasses pace.
As I approached the lollipop stick of the route again, I mentally braced for my second bout with the super-duper muddy section, this time with reduced vision. My biggest priority was safety. I took the downhills slowly, and I did my best to pick a good line through the difficult sections (steady...). I emerged safely again and put my head down for the last six miles.
Several miles of pavement, the last bit of dirt, and the final few paved miles through downtown Irwinton. I turned into the Blue Goose and crossed the finish line!
I heard several people cheer, but I was so spent that I could barely acknowledge their support. It took me about 15 minutes to change clothes, retrieve my contacts from my water bottle, and get a plate of delicious pasta and salad that the Blue Goose had prepared for the racers. I plopped down on the patio next to some other racers and felt like I wouldn't move for quite a while.
Kay had finished about 25 minutes ahead of me, and I learned that Anne had DNFed shortly before the SAG stop in Eastman. That was it for the women in the 40+ category for the 200K. I forget that we're rather rare birds:
When I got home, I had a restorative shower and made some popcorn for Robert and me to eat while we watched Star Trek. (I'm embarrassed to say that I've never seen the original TV series before, but Robert is getting me up-to-speed.) I went to bed early and got a good night's sleep.
This morning I felt rested yet fatigued - that unique sensation after a hard cycling exertion. The Middle Georgia Epic was tough but fun. That seems to describe so many of my most memorable bicycle adventures. It's also a pretty good description of life in general.