Doing it all the hard way...

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

2019 Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder Race Report

More than a week after finishing the OTGG (Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder) I am in awe of myself for finishing that beast of an adventure. I am also, a week out, still tired.  The term “Epic” is overused.  This was an epic undertaking.
It took months of training to get in shape for the ride.  It took years of cyclocross racing and gravel riding to accumulate the bike handling skills that would be required.  It took decades of bad decisions to have enough experience doing crazy things so as not to get off the bike, curl up into a ball and start crying and calling for my mother to take me home.
I’ve spent years shrugging my shoulders when people heard about my long rides or Fondo events.  Those Fondo events are hard and people should be impressed when someone finishes one.  This was five consecutive days of Fondo-caliber riding.  It has been eight days since the ride, and I am still wake up hungry.
My training came together and our clan of six arrived in time to avoid being rushed or having dead legs from the six plus hour car ride to Sisters, Oregon. 
 When we went out for some single track the day before the start, 
we didn't think we would be honing our skills for the event.....

As we assembled at the starting area it was apparent this was a full spectrum event. There were the usual serious old guys of which I reluctantly admit I am now counted among, but there were more super fit young riders than typically show up at a gravel Fondo.
The neutral roll out reflected the fitness of the crowd and after eight or so miles we were onto the gravel road and reassembled at the official start line.  We took off on the bright red pumice that is Oregon gravel and soon I was in my element. 
The fast guys, and there were mostly fast guys, pulled away quickly.  I was resolved to ride my own pace and settled into what I referred to as Zone 5 DAYS.  In other words, a pace I could hold for the five days.

This is what the day before, and the first day looked like: 

The scenery was spectacular and the air was clean and crisp.  On the first downhill there was an astounding collection of ejected water bottles.  I was shocked because the terrain on the downhill wasn’t that rough.  My belief that there were a lot of people who were fit as hell but lacked a lot of gravel experience was confirmed by the presence of so many bottles.
Whiplash feeling kind
Soon we crossed the Cascade crest and were on the greener, wetter side of the mountains. 

Everyone’s gravel is different.  In California dirt roads are called gravel.  In Kansas, the flint rock roads are called gravel.  In Washington the dirt and crushed rock of the forest service roads are what we call gravel.  In Oregon their gravel is broken down volcanic pumice that can range in size from marbles to powdered sugar.  More of the surface is sand-like in its consistency that I would have imagined and much more than I would have preferred.

Soon we hit the wagon road which was a series of piles of sand with a road through them.  I had the, “You can’t expect us to ride this crap,” thought as I fought my way along the road.   “This is going to kill the weak,” I said out loud.
The frequent sand traps manifested itself in a number of ways.  What I first noticed was the sudden deceleration when one would hit a sand patch.  It literally felt like someone pumped my brakes rather firmly.  The second was that your front wheel or rear wheel or both would drift to the side.  When this happened at speed it was always unsettling.  Over the course of the five days I could say I got all the practice riding in sand that I ever wanted.   Despite getting better at riding in sand there was a countless number of puckers every day. 
At camp we could recharge our bodies and our electronics
When I arrived at camp the first day I spotted McWoodie and rolled over to him.  I was about to ask the Einmotron to help me carry my tote to the campsite when I noticed his arm was bloody.  Looking around I saw St. Nick sitting in front of his freshly pitched tent and asked him to help me.  He sprang up and came over and I noticed the shoulder of his jersey had a hole like a shotgun blast and he pulled it back to revel a bloody shoulder.  He had the matching bloody leg as well.  The gravel had not been kind to the men in black and orange on this first day.
 Proud white trash
After we had showers, dinner and medical attention for our two fallen brothers, we recounted the days glory before falling asleep under cloudy skies.
Wet looked like this....
Day two dawned wet and after a solid breakfast we dressed in anticipation of rain.  We had poor cell reception and via text messages, Hottie was able to communicate the wet forecast.  We started with rain jackets on and climbed through an endless green canopy.   As we gained elevation it got colder and the rain only got harder.  Near the top people were getting nervous that we might get lightning or simply freeze to death. 

There was an aid station at the top but it was raining hard and I rushed through just emptying my pockets of food wrappers and refilling my bottles.  The descent was predictably cold and the soft surface meant I couldn’t just “let it fly.”  My hands were hurting reminiscent of the fabled Black Pine Lake ride.  My left hand hit a bush and it felt like my fingers had been whipped with a cat o’ nine tails.  I checked my fingers three times to see if they were bleeding.  Nope, just cold and hurting.
The paceline into Oakridge
I passed a rider pulled off to the side of the road trying to warm his hands in the icy rain.  I would pass at least six more on the descent doing the same thing.  A rider later remarked that he wished he had drank more so he could have peed on his hands to warm them. 

As I got lower in elevation the rain began to let up and it warmed up a bit.  Before long the sun was out and the Sam McGee experience at the top of the pass was only a memory.   When we finished the gravel for the day I spotted my team brothers and we assembled and road together to the campsite. 
This location was by a river and an hour later I would be dipping my body into the river to cleanse the mud and dust from my body.   
The day was shorter than the first day and it afforded some down time. 
The evening was highlighted by a fire in the main building in the park where we were camped.   We had eaten dinner by this time and we were too tired to worry about it.  As long as they could continue to feed us, we didn’t care.
Day three was the one everyone had circled as the big one and we were bracing for the challenge. 
We ate early and prepared for the monster ride.  
Eggs and taters covered in cheese plus a croissant and oats to boot!
This is how we dropped off our totes each morning
The entire route had excellent signage, 
including these flag that were placed AFTER 
the turns to let you know you were on the right road
When we rolled out my pockets were stuffed with food and I was as ready as I would ever be. 
Even the finish banner was sagging this was such a big day
Our route started with a long stretch of pavement that climbed in a series of stair steps as it passed lake after lake.  We’d climb to a lake, the go level along its shore, then climb to the next lake.  We had formed a paceline and I let it suck me along. 
If we were superheroes we'd be called "Scabman"

This is what Day 2 and 3 looked like:

When we finally turned onto gravel I knew it was time to get serious.  The grade kicked up to double digits and the trail got loose.  The climb was relentless.  It stayed steep and dry and soon we emerged from the cover of trees and it got hot as well. 
I stopped and straddled my top tube and grabbed my little bottle of Picklejuice.  It is exactly what it sounds like and it has been a miracle product for me in preventing or stopping cramps on huge rides.  I swigged it down and winced. 
Stop just long enough to see the lake, 
but not long enough for the mosquitoes to find you....

With the Picklejuice in my belly I started off again and my body seemed to know it was show time.  It was as if my body said, “Okay, he’s taken the Pickllejuice, release the Kracken.”  I quietly felt stronger.  I’m sure it was all in my head, but I’ll take any trick I can at my age.

Before long I reached the top of the long climb and filled my bottles and then climbed a little bit more and then the road turned into a series of rollers.  The rollers were more my style and I could power up them and recover on the backside.  That I can do all day long.
Then the rollers were collectively losing elevation and I was able to get going quicker.  When the road turned into rock garden I put my singletrack skills to use as I weaved a trail around the sharp rocks.  I entered a flow state as I was flying back and forth imagining myself as graceful as a soaring eagle.
When I ride I always offer encouragement to those I pass.  I seldom get a reply, but that is alright. On this ride today, the longer route had joined the shorter route and the fastest riders were passing me.  More than one, offered kind words and a couple even patted me on the back as they passed me.  I can tell you that those words of encouragement mattered a lot.  Thanks guys!

Emerging from this bliss I felt strong knowing the bulk of the big day was behind me.  I rolled into Gilcrist feeling like I had done something, and looking forward to the easier day that was promised for day four.
Our camp was tight this evening and the crowd was definitely showing signs of trail fatigue.  Spirits were high as we felt like we were now on the downhill portion of the adventure.
These small town gymnasiums were a slice of history
The morning of day four told the tale of how much physical toll this journey was taking.  Instead of breakfast being a stage for all the beautiful people it looked like the morning after a drunken frat party as tired riders shuffled into breakfast looking disheveled and hung over.  Puffy eyes, thousand mile stares and almost no conversation revealed how tired everyone was.
On top of that, it was frosty. 
There are worse things than cold shoes..........
Before the start they warned us the first ten to twelve miles were soft.  In fact the first twenty four miles were soft and the rest wasn’t much better.  Instead of the easy day we had hoped for I found myself with a bandana over my face to keep the dust out of my lungs and my legs churning out three hundred watts just to go five miles an hour in the soft flour like sand.
Everyone was looking for a good line.  There were none.
The surface got better and worse several times before finally spilling out onto pavement for the cruise into camp.  The sun was hot in the Oregon desert and we were glad when we arrived in camp.  Chad, the event organizer apologized for the rough conditions.  
Finally, some road that was not soft
Dinner was steak and salmon and was the best meal of the trip.  Everyone was smelling the finish and there was a true spirit of camaraderie.
The morning of the fifth day there was both an excitement and relief that we would soon be done.   This was another bigish day and under a hot sun we would be tested one final time.   Once again everyone looked like they had been thrown out of bed, but there were smiles everywhere. 
Once underway, the racers were chatty compared to the prior days.  “What’s your name, where you from?” were tossed back and forth.   We cheered each other on.   “Good work,” I said more than a dozen times.  

This is what days four and five looked like:

By now I found I was passing the same riders that I had passed on previous days at about the same points on the ride. 
Stairway to heaven
We hit some snow, but the mood was almost comical at this point and so, like the Oregon Trail pioneers, we just rolled with it...
I charged hard as I knew the end was near and when I saw the finish I just kept it up.  Crossing the line I really did sense I had done something.  This had been a hard five days and I had spent a lot of time and energy preparing. 
Done!  Oregon you're my bitch!
My phone had beeped when I was riding and I checked it now only to find the McWoodie had crashed out and was headed to Bend to seek medical attention.  What a heartbreaker.   I would later find that he crashed just prior to the last climb and his crash broke five ribs (a team record).

With a head swirling with a myriad of thoughts I began a twenty kilometer descent back to Sisters where it had all started five days earlier.  
I entered the park and rode under the finisher’s banner and received a medal for finishing that was the size of a small plate.  I found McWoodie who was moving slow and forcing a smile.  We were in no hurry to leave as we ate and swapped stories.   Any thoughts of heading home that night were quickly tossed as we were all blown.

 NOT McWoodie (a.k.a. McRibs), but you get the idea
My phone beeped that there was a reminder for the next day, Monday, to check my two week training look ahead.  I smiled.  My training is done, it is time to recovery now.

Perhaps this is something you do ONE TIME!

Monday, June 10, 2019

The hay is in the barn

For me, the magic seems to happen when I can log ten or more hours of riding in a week.   Early in 2019 I was counting all aerobic hours which made sense.  Riding, skiing and running all counted. When the snow melted, the metric reverted to cycling hours only. As the OTGG gets closer, I’ve added more and more intensity as well as pinned on a number and raced a couple times.

As much fun as I have had with intervals recently, it is time to taper and while I do keep some intensity, my saddle hours finally get to reduce as I hope to start OTGG with fresh guns. The magnitude of the OTGG scared me and I have been a selfish dick and logged a lot of miles in hopes of not dying during the event.  I have been doing the core work I always hoped I would do.  I’ve been embracing the polarized training model and it appears to be working.  All of this has created the false impression in my head that I am ready, and thus I can taper without wondering if I should have done more.

 Despite the miles I have behind me, I am keenly aware that I am not a young man. My years of “toughing it out,” or getting by based on my exceptionally good looks are past and now there is no substitute for diligent preparation and mandatory diminished expectations.

I have worked out the bugs and have a saddle that seems to work with my butt, I have found the foods (fuel) that seem to agree with me three, four, five, or six hours into a ride.  I’ve figured out which gloves protect my hands the best from hours of vibration on rough roads.  I’ve done the toteming that determines which bits of gear make the trip and what stays home in the drawer.

The goal after this weekend is just to not mess up.  Don’t eat too much or lift anything too heavy.  If someone near me sneezes, just watch me walk away.  I can’t afford to waste all the sacrifices I have made as well as all that I have asked from Hottie.  I did manage to drop a forty pound sheet of construction debris on my foot Sunday morning, but by a miracle of happenstance I was wearing some Vans skate shoes with a thick padded tongue.  My foot is blue, and I’ll take blue over broken every time.

If there was a weather app that allowed you to order your local weather I would have ordered warm and sunny this week as a final tune up for OTGG.   By some coincidence, that is what we are expecting. 

Time to pack.