Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Almanzo 2012, View from an (even older than Emery) old-ish guy

While Annie has her own range of idiosyncratic hobbies and pursuits—stage combat, music career, unicorn hunter—she genuinely puzzles over some of the things I choose to do (for fun). Not the whole plushie phase, I mean. She supports my endeavors with a big heart and a hug, and likely thinks it’s at least partially a sign of worthwhileness in me as a mate, but, still, she wonders. She really wonders. Last week, we stopped at One on One so she could search for old Stingrays for a video she’s making, and the topic of the upcoming Almanzo 100 arose. ‘Why,’ she asked, ‘would anyone want to do something like that? It can’t be fun. It certainly isn’t easy. It takes SO long. Why?’
This wasn’t my first time, but it was apropos, as we were approaching Hurl, inaugural Almanzo winner and all-around hardman. I laughed and repeated her question to him, clarifying that some will race the race (him) and others of us will simply ride the road (me). ‘Because,’ was the gist of his answer.
Because it’s there. Because it’s hard. Because Chris Skogen believes and puts it together. Some bridge between a charity ride and Riding the Divide for those who aren't local racers.
I was too mentally blown to jot down my thoughts after the race, which is unfortunate (for me) as they were, I’m certain, really insightful and inspiring. Some moments of clarity amid the grind and sufferage on the gravel might have stuck—but my hands were too locked on the bars to risk taking out the quill and inkwell to jot them on the Rapha ostrich-eggshell parchment I always carry.
I was mostly pondering the triad of challenges: mental, physical, and emotional, while trying to distinguish whether the emotional was stand-alone or (merely!) a resulting side dish of the former two.
In the final ten miles, I couldn’t tell whether I was fighting dry heaves or convulsive sobbing. It was a bit of both, gentle reader.
I first did the ride two years ago. My first century, my first gravel ride, my first time on the hills of the area. I was new to cycling and happened to hear Hurl talking with some guys at CRC about it. ‘Give it a shot,’ he said. ‘It’s beautiful down there.’ So I did. I finished somewhere around 8:40 or so. I’d packed too much—enough food for three people for two days, really—and had carried extra bottles in a musette bag (very dumb; it swung and swung and rubbed against my back, disrupting my balance). It was incredibly hard. I finished. I bonked at about 28 miles. The depths of lonely suffering were interesting and shitty. Returned that fall to do the Gentleman’s Ride with Martin Rudnik, Chelsea Strate, plus Jeff from QPB. I figured after a summer of riding and rolling in a group, I’d be able to come in easily before eight hours. Nope.
Those miles, and those hills, remain obstinate and unforgiving. I again packed too much stuff; likely didn’t eat right, suffered cramps, and, notably, was psyched out enough to walk most of the hills after Preston. The mental component really showed itself to me then: I knew more but had less gumption for the challenges, forfeiting on the hills w/o really attempting to scale them. Jay Road: fuck you; Oriole: fuck you; 38th Street, or whatever your hilly-ass name: fuck you, too. No, fuck me. I was cowed conceptually and belly crawled up all of them.
Last year, in the elemental morass, my hands and feet were done after mile 25 or so. I knew what lay ahead and the prospect of suffering further—let alone keeping a bike upright w/ no grip in my hands—was too much for this weekender. I’d also packed my full size Banjo Brothers backpack, which caused massive cramping in my lower back.
As with many, many others, it was a miserable day. Turned off at Preston, guided another lonely, lost straggler back to the base, and shivered for several hours even in dry clothes. I marvel at the folks who were able to finish: it wasn’t mental for me last year. My hands and feet were not working. Can’t fake that. How others were immune to the elements is something I’ve pondered ever since then.
This year: hot and windy. Garmin showed average of 88, high of 96. The gusts were ferocious and incessant. I packed three 20 oz. water bottles and about ten ounces of pickle juice. Still brought too much food, but managed not to cram myself w/ dead weight. Brought capsules of hydration supplement, some Gatorade mini-quenchers, other stuff. Went through at least eleven bottles of fluids plus a triumphant root beer from the roadside church. Banana graciously provided by volunteers at 65 mile checkpoint was delicious. I managed to avoid cramps and heat exhaustion.
I sweat a lot. In the winter, I can’t ride much when it’s below 20, because after about twenty minutes, I’m sweating so hard, no matter what my layering, that my core starts to get REALLY cold. Fingers and toes get cold fast, but the core shivers aren’t cool. When it’s hot, or even warmish, I sweat profusely & must be vigilant about losing too much fluid/hydration/electrolytes/salt. And I sweat so hard I tend to get saddle sores from the crotch swamp, but who’s asking?
I did spend a good amount of time riding alone, with others in sight, feeling miserable, deciding that this may be great and all but it’s not healthy for me. It’s a long time (relatively) out moving in the elements w/ no real escape or backup plan.
*Except: there is an option—I can/could choose to get off my fucking bike and take a break in the shade. But some part of me resists that. Even though I’m racing against no one, competing only w/ the elements, my body, my mind, I’m loath to ‘lose time’ unless I have to. Stopping for the root beer cost me five minutes, but it was a massive help to stop, refill bottles, and slug down that sasparilla-esque goodness.
Could I have finished faster? Obviously, yes.
Could I have finished slower? Most definitely, yes.
The wind and the hills weren’t conducive to finding like-speeded road buddies. I’d catch some riders, hope to form something productive, then one of us would slow or the other would press ahead. Besides, many of the freaks I saw probably resorted to cannibalism once things got lean… There is such a great mix of folks that Skogen brings in for this ride. Lots of serious athletes, sub-ten-percent body fat types with lots of obsessed amateur dedication and silly arrogance. Punk-minded folks on fixies and singles. Fat bikes, 29ers, tandems, the rogue unicycle! People well into Clydesdale range. Couples.
I’ve heard there’s an actual race, waaaay up front. Can’t imagine what that’s like, but I support the concept. For the rest of us, it’s a drive to survive. All riding the same course, with a range of experiences and speeds and skills from front to rear. All of us--EACH of us--is alone out there. There is no other way to get through it: we are each alone within ourselves. Saturday was hot, windy, dusty enough that there wasn’t much chatter; last year, the cold, muck, rain were prohibitive. Maybe Chris just wants us to shut up & suffer…
I'm a 45 year old hack who rides for fun--I started riding two years ago and will never improve to the level of either the 25 yo beginners OR the 45 year old retirees. I try to race because it scrapes the crud from the depths of my lungs. Chuck and the Behind-Bars/LGR team are wonderful and tolerate my ineptness, but it's not as if a big training block is going to get me beyond Cat 7... And that's fine. Looking at some of the fitness-obsessed, number-crunching, gear-fetishizing A-type dudes in the parking lot, I felt more affinity for the dude wearing his Jimmy John's delivery jersey and cutoff jeans.
The start is always faster than it should—peer pressure, adrenalin, too many people. I reminded myself I had HOURS of riding ahead and was already sweating fast by mile five, but I always just ride where I’m at. Haven’t learned how to actually pace myself, or, the competitive part of me tries to press on within limits I can muster. I recognized a fair number of people, and saw an inspiring range of self-serious to rollickingly comic dispositions. Several hours later, when the toll was taken, I was passing many a guy who seemed several categories above me. Dehydration plays no favorites.
There were certainly casualties of the road. I asked if they were all right, and most just glared at me, done. Toast. Spent. Several were walking through cramps. Some were sitting by the roadside, defeated. I noted that they all had water, and, since there wasn’t more I could do, and I had little room for extra exertion, or lost momentum, myself, I plodded on. I did share a bottle with a guy in final ten miles. He sucked it down then ripped off at a speed I couldn’t hope to match on my best day. ‘Fucking roadies…’
I missed Martin, since his energy is so positive and inspiring. Hurl had a shit day, as I saw him at mile 65 when ordinarily he’s done by the time I reach there. Mark Emery, Kevin, several others I recognize from around town. The 2F4Love guy was not sparing with his venom toward the conditions. There’s something pretty democratic about having big, small, short, tall, female, male, old and young riding the same, albeit individually unique, race, and, as Hurl said in other context, ‘Skinny guys don’t win races, fast guys do.’
I was really impressed by the widespread presence of Twin Six gear throughout the race. Not just rolling along with Ryan for a bit, but the variety of jerseys, the full kits, the Revolution/T6 army, many socks. For a local business, they have done well by the local scene and genuinely represent MN cycling; in turn, we show our love right back. I wish I'd snapped more photos, but--I didn't.
I liked that I didn't use my Camelback, as the weight against my lower back would have exacerbated the back cramps; I left the backpack at home, too. I have a Banjo Bros. trunk pack, which held my tools, a spare bottle, and spare eats. It's a great investment. For the Dirty Benjamin, I'm giving the single speed a shot, and will use the Camelback, I think.
The gracious volunteers who donated their time and water/treats were day-savers. Seriously.
We've had what's euphemized as a 'rough family patch' over the past year. Nothing too horrible, but real life intruding on heart, mind, spirit, free time. I wasn't able to ride much from late-July through October due to some domestic situation; then, December-April was sunk with some challenges with my daughter. A mild, nearly tropical winter 'missed' in terms of cycling or running outside. I'd like to have more time to ride, to 'train,' and all, but, I enjoy the time I have--which is more than many people's--and the important thing is to make family life work. I had bronchitis two weeks ago, and was ready to bag the race, less because of my lungs the the lack of miles in my legs. I'm glad I didn't.
The mental games started with the first stabs of fatigue, sub-30 miles. You can bag it. Just turn off at Preston. You don't NEED to do this. You showed up, you started, just take it easy... Past Preston, with 'refreshed' legs, hydration and a snack aboard, I was feeling better. Made it up Jay Road hill, and started guessing how many killers were left. You can do this. Some lonely hours and miles until the State Park, but no inclination to quit. After that, there were many arguments against ever doing such a ride again: You've got the wrong body type; your shoulders hurt in the stupid jersey; your feet are swollen and painful; bad circulation to your hands; in cold weather, you freeze--in hot temps, you melt and dehydrate, etc Over and over. And over. I was suffering. Thousand-yard stares were exchanged as we straggling loners passed each other. Grunts as greetings.
Crossing out of the final ravine, knowing it WOULD end, and end well (after five mere miles of wind-blasted rollers), I felt a wild impulse to drop into Annie's lap and sob. The release of so much tension and stress from the past year: situations where there really didn't feel like any means or options to give in, so I didn't. But, here, pushing myself in a literal metaphor for suffering, I felt the dueling impulses to quit and the terror of quitting, the fear of lost control and the enervating release of surviving that fear.
When I reached the parking lot, having hovered a moment to offer the guy I passed in final 500 yards the chance to cruise in together (it’s pretty lame to pip someone at the line for 300th place) before pedaling with resurrected abandon towards the line and Chris’s waiting handshake, I nearly broke down in tears as I collapse-hugged his mid-section. The emotions of the past year welled up. I exorcised nothing, but fought through a lot.

Other than a nasty sweat-induced saddle sore in/on my taint and some random sunburn striations, I'm fine. I'll be back for the Gentleman's Ride, motherfucker. The hills and miles and gravel will be no easier. It's what we each bring to the ride that shapes our experience of the ordeal.

Congrats to all who finished, who started and fell apart. To the winners of every stripe, and, once again, to the incredible warhorses who did 162 miles in the day, not just 100. Those people are hors categorie & batshit! Kudos and congrats.

Thanks as ever to Chris Skogen and his family, and his extended crew/family of volunteers. It is a very, very special event.

1 comment:

  1. You've really captured the essence of the slog, Jeremy. Congrats on finishing- I hear it was brutal (again) this year.