Sunday, May 15, 2011

Almanzo recap, 2011

I'm warm now, and that putain soleil has deigned to show its slutty mug in the sky, but it's Sunday, a day after the Almanzo. I am sure I am not alone in having a strange day-after blend of sentiments. I can imagine that in most cases, when a significant number of people DNF a race, there's morning-after regret: 'If only I'd done x, or y, or z'; 'If I hadn't done...' and the raft of self-recrimination and second-guessing.

Honestly, I bet a paltry few of the legion of DNFers are saying that. Sure, this surreal sunshine makes for hallucinatory daydreams, but really, most of us were cooked--by the elements, not the course. I cannot fathom how those hard-assed men & women were able to withstand the chill, the invasive & penetrating wetness, the bone-cutting combo of supersaturation and windchill. The break area at Preston, esp inside the general store, was less filled with people who were having second thoughts than those who were shivering uncontrollably.

It was a gorgeous ride, the scenery is simply stunning and varied, and with the shifting layers of clouds and rain, the palette was a swirling mix of asphalt, cobalt, gray, etc. I wished to snap some keepsake photos at some of the panorama vistas or some of the micro oddities and natural coolness, but my fingers were squishing inside the gloves and the camera-phone's screen was not able to function in the wetness and grit. In my head, it was glorious.

I'd worried and pondered and fretted all week as the weather reports were grim. Knowing myself, I worried I'd sweat too much if I over-dressed; I also know I lose function when feet & fingers get too chilled. I dithered and diddled, switched and re-switched my packing list. In the end, I chose to overpack (so I thought) and tote a change of socks, gloves, jersey, etc, in my backpack, which has good side holsters that held extra liquid for me. Mistake. The weight of the pack pressed and rolled against my lower back and within five miles, I was feeling tightness, spasms, and burning in my back. And it didn't go away. I was near to crying for the sheer un-stopping-ness of the pain. Low-grade and temporary, but for the matter at hand, a real bummer. I stopped a few times and tried to stretch; I'd shift and stretch while coasting, but to no avail. Then, for brief periods, it would subside and I could pedal freely.

I threw in the towel mentally pretty early. My fingers and toes weren't hurting yet when I knew the back would just get worse the longer the day went on, the more tired I got, the colder/wetter I got. Plus, my legs were feeling shittier the more I struggled with my back. Gun to my head? I could have made it further, but probably not the entire route. By mile 25 or so, my fingers and toes were really wet and getting numb. The mud was smeared so thick I couldn't accurately read the odometer, and the cue sheets were hard to read. Fortunately, there were hundreds of tire tracks leading the way through the mud.

It was interesting to feel the battle between mental and physical take place in my back rather than in my legs or mind. I'd expected to struggle and suffer in the course. I was aware that the second time I rode it last year, it was far easier to bail on the second half's hills--knowing how hard they were, despite being in better riding form than when I did it as a rookie, totally unaware. I offered up the vision of bailing in Preston, which removed some of the psych worry. Then, when I felt better briefly, I WANTED to continue further, but the reality that I don't know my way around down there and could easily be a long, far-flung journey back to the base if I by-passed Preston--that got heavy in my mind & legs. I finally yielded to common sense: nothing could would come of pushing a twingeing back pain in such hard conditions: the wind, the hills, the rain, the temps...

People were in great fettle, digging the absurdity and camaraderie, but after three hours of it, a good many started to flag. It was a treat to see many local faces, mud-covered and grinning, as we be-spattered ourselves. Plus the many who'd traveled from afar for the event. Great spirit overall. And we suffered together. The hills, of course, never take a vacation, and they were no shorter for all the rain and wind. When I pulled the plug, I found myself shaking violently at the store in Preston; tried to pee to get the excess liquid out, but I couldn't. The more I stood there trying to stretch, the colder and stiffer I got. I found another guy heading back and we rode out together on the asphalt. He was in worse overall shape than I, so I tried to pace & support him back. Fortunately, it was all on Hwy 16, so there were no directions to follow. Still, he was fading. I tried to encourage him, but he was throwing in the towel. Another abandoner zipped up behind me and I mistakenly thought it was my riding pal with a second/third wind, so we upped the pace. After a mile or so, the guy came around me--different dude altogether. I looked back and the first guy was vanished. We'd seen a steady caravan of bailing bikers in cars passing us, and a smattering of cyclists also on the road. The man wasn't in jeopardy: he was cooked and done, but not in peril. I needed to get dry. I needed to get my back free of the weight. I plodded on.

I am so completely in awe of all those who got past Preston, let alone those who completed the 100, and the truly hardy souls who knocked off 162 miles... Words fail me. I can easily yield to the better bikers, stronger riders with good legs and engines, but I genuinely cannot understand how they were able to withstand the same brutal crap for so long. I wore winter boots w/ gore tex & all that, & I dumped out six ounces of cold, muddy water when I finally disrobed. It's not just the gear, and not just the skills--something remarkable. Many folks who likely could have legitimately finished also chose to call it a day. Lower competitive thresholds or less desire to suffer for glory. Even a 57 mile day in cold rain, 2/3 on gravel, with hills, isn't particularly easy.

Chris Skogen, who originated this particular race, which is now the centerpiece of the local gravel century race series, is a remarkable fellow. His dedication and vision and enthusiasm and humility are astounding. The volunteer crew are selfless and sacrificing. It's an honor to be a part of it, and I felt the most shame to bail out if only because I felt the organizers had put so much into it, I hated to undervalue their efforts.

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