14 July 2015

National 24-Hour Challenge 2015: Racing the Rain (that never came)

Last month, I again went out to Middleville, Michigan for the craziest of cycling events: the National 24-Hour Challenge (N24HC). This was my second time participating. Last year's ride report has many more details about the basics and logistics of the event itself; you may want to review that if you're not familiar. The event begins at 8am Saturday, and the challenge is to see how many miles you can ride before 8am Sunday. My story from this year's event continues below the jump.

I did better this year than last year, but had a bit rougher time of it. I managed to rack up more miles, and to get there in less time. Physically, with the exception of one rough patch late in the evening, I did fine. My big issues were mental: As the event wore on, I found it increasingly difficult to stay motivated and engaged. Instead of fighting muscle cramps or fatigue, it seemed I was fighting my mind’s continual questions of “Why am I here?” and "Why am I doing this?"

My initial goal was 350 miles. Late in the evening, that goal began seeming less and less likely. I started thinking: Okay, what would be the minimum I could ride and not go home ashamed? And where would I have to get so I could actually declare some kind of meaningful “victory”? The answers: a triple century, and more miles than last year (317.5), respectively. Hitting that target would become by new primary goal.

I arrived the evening before, in a rush, much later than most other participants. I’d intended to get there very early, get set up, and take a ride around the short loop to test out my bike. Then, a last-minute project came up with work. I ended up at my desk until 6:30, and then had to rush to get to Middleville (fortunately, the car was basically packed). I made it around 8:15. Got set up and unpacked, and warmed up a quart of potato soup. Ate it by myself, as everyone else had gone their own way.

I slept on an air mattress with sleeping bag in the gym, which was fine. Lights out at 10pm. I got up a bit before 6am, and got going. Had half a bagel, along with a 20oz cup of coffee that had some Hammer Gel mixed in. Turned out to be the perfect breakfast, and a much better alternative than paying $7 or whatever for the big pancake breakfast that was too much food. Filled all my water bottles with my custom powdered fuel mix. I put batches of that mix together in the proportions of 4 (small) scoops Hammer HEED to one (large) scoop of Hammer Vegan Protein. I then measured out 1.5 small scoops into each bottle, along with some ice (I'd brought a large bag with me in the cooler). Filled the bottles from the water fountain.

Some things I learned from last year that really improved the experience this year: Set up a “home base” along the circular drive, with my cooler, a padded folding chair, and a medium-sized plastic container with lid. The cooler held my drink bottles, ice, two pints of potato soup, grilled chicken, roast pork loin, and a package of cooked hot dogs. The plastic container had my basic tools, more custom Hammer drink mix, non-perishable food, rain gear, lights, Hammer gel, and every other supply I might need. As much as possible, I put things in separate quart-sized Ziploc storage bags. Having everything there on the circle drive made each trip through MUCH more efficient.

This year, I rode with a couple of new pieces of equipment from X-Lab: a Turbo Wing mounted to the saddle, which holds two extra bottle cages and to which various other things can be secured, and a Rocket Bag that mounts to the top tube and secures to the headset. In the Rocket Bag, I stashed my cell phone, the route map, a tiny baggie with about eight ibuprofen tablets, and lots of tiny baggies with individual servings of Hammer supplements. I carried a total of four water bottles at the start, and began the event with a baggie of fig bars in my pocket. I also rode with a flask of Hammer Gel, mounted to my handlebar stem using a convenient holster.

Each individual serving of Hammer supplements included: one Race Caps Supreme, one Endurance Amino, and two Anti-Fatigue Caps. I carried a tube of Endurolytes, but should have also put an Endurolytes into each of the supplement baggies. It was quite warm all day, right from the start, and I could’ve used those extra electrolytes.  The temp was around 60F at the start, and quickly went up into the low 80s and stayed there. Rain and thunderstorms were forecast for the evening, but never materialized (though they did threaten). It stayed so warm, even overnight, that an extra layer of clothing was never necessary.

I lined up early, so was able to grab onto the tail of the lead group right from the beginning at 8am. We rode at a very fast ─ but not at all uncomfortable ─ pace. The first several miles were through the country in a huge pack, and I almost felt like I was in the Tour de France peloton. Especially enjoyed the locals, who’d set up folding chairs at the ends of their driveways to wave and cheer as we went past.

A few miles later we reached Middleville proper. This year, because of construction, we bypassed most of downtown. There was a sizable climb right after we left town, which actually felt good. The lead group of 25-30 riders came back together after that climb, and I stuck with them all the way to the first checkpoint (34.4 miles). I didn’t keep statistics for that leg of the event, but our average speed was roughly 23 MPH.

Al Stover Photography: 24 Hour 2015 Start &emdash;
With the lead group, sixth from the front. White jersey, orange bike.
At the checkpoint, volunteers punch a hole in each rider’s bib number indicating they’ve completed that first leg. Last year, I dawdled at the checkpoint and got dropped from the lead group. This year, I learned my lesson. As we approached the checkpoint, I sprinted to the front and was one of the first to get my number punched. I immediately swapped my empty water bottle to the Turbo Wing for a fresh one (I’d completely finished one bottle, and had started on a second). I blasted through the parking lot, ahead of nearly every other rider in the lead pack. Back on the road, I pedaled easily and let everyone catch me. The group came together, and we were again going down the road well above 20 MPH.

I managed to hold on to that group until Mile 52. At that point, as we climbed a big hill, I realized I’d been working too hard. I watched the rest of the riders stream past, and made a conscious decision that “enough was enough.” I knew my limits. If I tried to hold on, I’d be cooked for sure. I settled into my own comfortable pace, and cruised to the second checkpoint alone. I ate some fig bars, and some Hammer Gel, as I rode.

At Checkpoint #2 (71.7 miles), after getting my number punched, I used the toilet for the first time and then got back on the road. I soon settled into a comfortable solo pace, and was feeling pretty good. Then, after a few miles, I came across a rider with mechanical issues. I stopped to see if he needed help, and he did: he’d broken a spoke on his rear wheel. Being a low-spoke count wheel, it was now horribly out of true and rubbing his brake pads. Simply opening the calipers wider didn’t help; he needed to borrow my hex wrench to unfasten the cable itself from the brake. That did the trick, even if it also deprived him of a rear brake. I rode with him, and a few other guys, for several miles and enjoyed talking with them. We were eventually caught by a tandem, and rode together to Checkpoint #3, 96.3 miles.

Al Stover Photography: 24 Hour 2015 Delon CP &emdash;
At Checkpoint #3. Tandem team to far right. I am immediately to the left of them.

By now the weather was getting quite warm. Not super-hot, but definitely warm and humid enough so I was feeling it. At Checkpoint #3, I still had one full bottle of fuel mix. Unsure if that would be enough, I added powder to one of my empty bottles and filled it with water. This proved to be a mistake; something about the water they had there at the stop didn’t taste good. I ended up drinking very little from that bottle as a result, and fortunately the one other remaining bottle was enough to get me to the finish line. Lesson learned: because the Turbo Wing gives me ability to carry four bottles, I can do the entire first loop without stopping for more water.

I took some Hammer supplements, and then I got back on the road. The final leg wasn’t that difficult; it was generally a lot more downhill than uphill, especially so from the checkpoint to mile 110 or so ─ then it was generally level to the TKMS main hub (Checkpoint 4). I finished Lap 1 in just over six hours of riding time, or 20.3 MPH on the bike. That blew away last year’s time for Loop 1 by nearly a half hour, and I credit it to getting through the first checkpoint so much faster ─ and being able to stick with the lead group for an extra 20 miles. (Also, Loop 1 was two miles shorter than last year.) Regardless, I’ve never been able to cover so much ground in just six hours before.

My rear derailleur had been shifting really badly all the way through Loop 1; I think the sloppiness was due to having switched wheelsets at the last minute (long story – I’d been planning to ride a set of carbon tubulars, but right before the event discovered issues with both tires, so switched to my Campy Eurus alloy tubulars). At TKMS, a local bike shop had set up to help with mechanical issues. The mechanic was a really nice guy, and he got my derailleur shifting perfectly in no time. It gave me no further trouble the rest of the event.

I grabbed a couple of hot dogs from the cooler, and a bag of raisins. Got two fresh bottles from the cooler, used the toilet, and then started my first of three circuits around Lap 2 at 2:12, meaning I’d spent about 10 minutes off the bike all day so far. Loop 2 was generally downhill or level to the one checkpoint, about seven miles in. From there, it climbed for a mile or so, then we had lots of generally downhill terrain for a few miles. Then it climbed a little before leveling off to the finish. According to my Garmin, Loop 2 had a little over 700 feet of climbing.

My first trip around Lap 2 was quite strong, averaging 17.5 MPH. Total riding time was 1:23:17, two minutes slower than my first Loop 2 last year.

Al Stover Photography: 24 Hour 2015 Bowers Mill &emdash;
Cruising strong on Loop #2
I took a longer break after the first Loop 2, had some of the pork roast, then departed for my second Loop 2 at 3:49pm. Took one full large bottle of fuel mix, and one smaller bottle; the loop wasn’t really long enough to require two full large bottles. I rode a little slower this time, but faster than last year.

The third time around Loop 3, I had several issues. First, just a quarter mile down the road, the Garmin stopped working; it went to a “system setup” screen, and I could not get it reset. I think it had something to do with the way I plugged in and removed the Gomadic charger. Anyway, trying to reset the Garmin distracted me for several miles, before I eventually gave up trying. Then, more seriously, I noticed my rear wheel felt funny. I pulled over to check it, and sure enough…it was going seriously soft. Not a big leak, but big enough. Most frustrating: I was riding high quality tubular tires, and had pre-treated both of them with Continental Revo Sealant. Especially with a slow leak, the sealant really should have done its job and stopped it. Hoping that with a little more time the sealant would work better, I pumped the tire up and continued down the road. A couple of miles later, though, I could again feel the road bump-bumping under a soft tire.

At this point, I should have deployed my can of Vittoria Pit Stop. But somewhere in my mind, I guess I was thinking: I only have one can with me. If I use it now, and it doesn’t work, and I get a flat up front later, I won’t have it. The slow leak is manageable. If I stop and pump every few miles, I can limp back to TKMS and replace the wheel, and keep my Pit Stop in case I really need it. I was carrying a spare tubular, using X-straps on the Turbo wing. But I really did not want to change a tire unless strictly necessary. There were some fast descents ahead, and I didn’t want to fly down them on a lightly-glued spare tubular.

I limped into the checkpoint, and borrowed a floor pump. Got the rear pressure all the way up to the limit (170 PSI), hoping that would buy me more miles before having to stop and pump. It did. I rode for several miles, and enjoyed chatting with, a woman who had been at a 12-Hour race in Illinois with us the previous year (when my then-15 y.o. daughter rode her first double century). We talked about that event, and she confirmed that she’s coming back for the same race this summer. We also chatted about this year’s Calvin’s Challenge. And then my tire started going flat again.

I explained the situation to her, wished her well, and pulled over. I decided it was time to deploy the Pit Stop ─ and it worked perfectly. Inflated the tire to about 80 PSI or so, and it held great all the way back to TKMS. I then used a floor pump to take the pressure all the way up to 120. I ended up not having to swap the wheel; this one held pressure all night long. I put a fresh can of Pit Stop in my saddle bag. I also got the Garmin issues cleared up – but all the miles from that trip around Loop 2 went unrecorded, and for some reason the clock times no longer seemed to record accurately. I’m not sure exactly what time it was, but after all this trouble…I didn’t want to risk going around Loop 2 again. If the Pit Stop didn’t hold, I didn’t want to be so far from TKMS. I decided it was time to switch to the 7.6-mile “night loop” for the remainder of the event. I surrendered the daytime portion of my rider number. Total daytime miles: 193.9.

At this point, I was feeling demoralized from the tire / Garmin issues ─ and was starting to feel a little burned out physically as well. Part of it was the heat, but I think going so hard on Loop 1 definitely contributed. I loved sticking with the lead group for so long, and getting through Loop 1 in just over six hours, but I was now feeling it.

The rest of the evening was a blur, and my notes are unclear as to details. Got back on the course around 7:40 and started plugging away doing trips around Loop 3. Rain was threatening, and everyone was saying thunderstorms were a strong possibility. I wanted to ride as many miles as possible before the rain started. I figured I could take my breaks after that. The first trip or two, my stomach wasn’t feeling very good. I had no appetite at all, and couldn’t even choke down Hammer Gel (by now I’d gone through one full flask) or my liquid fuel mix. I switched to plain ice water, which went down very nicely, and I stuck with it the entire remainder of the event ─ making sure to consume even more Endurolytes capsules, to make up for the electrolytes I was no longer getting in liquid form. Eventually, the stomach issues faded and my appetite slowly returned.

The locals who lived along Loop 3 were wonderful. Lots of them sat out on their porches or driveways well into the night, cheering us as we went by. (Some of the little kids were clearly up way past their bedtimes.) As it got later and later, and darker and darker, it got nicer and nicer knowing that someone else was out there and pulling for you.  

I needed 21 trips around Loop 3 to reach 350 miles, 14 trips to reach 300, and 16 to roughly equal last year. At some point, 21 loops just seemed overwhelming; it was all I could do to keep struggling toward the minimum baseline goal of 14. Part of the problem was the rain that was constantly threatening; I felt I needed to keep pushing myself, to do what I could, and not take any longer breaks, so I could be within striking distance of the 14-loop minimum. I guess it was around midnight or 1am that I decided to take a longer break and have some potato soup; I finally felt I had enough of an appetite. Also, the Garmin battery was dead and needed a long charge from the Gomadic (which I’d neglected earlier). My lights, which I’d been swapping out as they went dead, also needed a good charge.  I hadn’t reached 14 loops yet, but I knew I was close. At this point, I was mentally shot and wondering why I was bothering to be at this event. I decided I needed a nap, and set my alarm for 2am.

The alarm seemed to go off so fast, I could’ve sworn no time at all had gone past. I forced myself off the air mattress, gathered up my Garmin and lights, and put on a turtleneck. I’d been expecting it to now be chilly, but it wasn’t. The turtleneck was not necessary, but wasn’t uncomfortable, so I left it on. Oh, another lesson learned from last year: I wore the same white jersey all day and all night, so I wouldn’t have to unpin and repin my rider number.

I wasn’t excited about being back on the bike, but eventually got into a rhythm. I told myself all I had to do was finish 17 trips around Loop 3. No breaks until then ─ but then you get to be done. Just keep going. Get to 17. No stopping. That’s all you have to do.

And so that’s what I did. I finished Lap #17 and pulled into TKMS at about 6:48 AM, with 323.1 miles. That’s more miles, in less time, than last year. I knew I easily had time for two more laps, and my body could have done those two laps. But I just didn’t care. I’d beaten last year, and my mind was begging to be let off the bike. You did it. You promised me we’d be done now.

And so we were. I turned in my rider number, ate a Hammer Vegan Recovery Bar, took my post-event supplements, set my phone alarm for 8am, and crashed on my air mattress for a brief nap before breakfast.

The breakfast was awesome, but the award ceremony was a bit slow to get started. I took the opportunity to make a few trips to the car, and get everything packed. I caught a little of the ceremony, but then took off at 9:45 because I needed to get to Mason in time for 11am Mass at St. James. The drive was a little difficult, given my level of exhaustion, but the nap had given me enough “reserve” to make it okay. I barely managed to stay awake all the way through Mass (just don't ask me for any details about Father's homily!). 

I was now extremely hungry, and craving the biggest and sloppiest homemade hamburger I could find. I stopped at Meijer, got some ground beef and hamburger buns, and drove home. After greeting everyone, and enjoying a couple of those big sloppy hamburgers, I went down hard for a long nap on the couch in my office. I think I slept until 5 or 6pm, and then had another hamburger.

Some additional thoughts and notes about specific aspects of the event:

Lights: We had to have lights on by 9:30, which was about a half hour past sunset. I brought two Niterider rechargeable lights, a 600 lumen model and a 350 lumen model. The idea was to charge one while using the other, and also to have a backup in case something happened to one of the lights. Both lights use the same fixed base, so it was easy to swap them out.

Around 8:30, I mounted the 600 lumen light to the handlebar, and switched on the red tail light. To save battery power, I didn’t actually use the Niterider until 9pm or so. I also swapped my sunglasses for clear glasses. (I used a pair of cheap shooting glasses from Wal-Mart, and they were perfect.) Clear was a much better choice than yellow.
In the plastic box, I had extra AAA batteries for the taillight, but I never needed them. I also brought a backup red taillight, just in case something catastrophic happened to my other one. Even something as simple as the bike toppling over at a rest stop could potentially break the taillight. Without a backup, I would’ve been grounded until sunup.

All night, I used the lowest setting (200 lumens) on the 600 lumen Niterider ─ except when descending the one big hill. I usually clicked up to the full 600 lumen setting while coming down, then reduced the power after making the right turn at the bottom of the hill. When riding with the 350, I usually used the middle (200 lumen) setting, but powered up to the full 350 lumens for descents. I tended to swap the headlights (plug one in, and take the one that’d been charging) every time I went into the TKMS building to use the bathroom or get water.

Gearing: I rode a 53-39 up front, and 12-25 11s cassette in the back. It was more than adequate. Most of the hills were rollers, and I think they eliminated the really big climb on Loop 1 that we’d had last year. Loop 2 was just rollers. Loop 3 had one good climb toward the end, which wasn’t too bad objectively, but it seemed to get steeper and steeper all night. I very seldom needed to go lower than my 21T cog (49 inch gear) on any hill. I know I never touched my 25T. At the other end of the spectrum, I never spun out the 53 x 12 and wished I had an 11-tooth cog.

Other Hardware. I rode my Curtlo road bike, which has a True Temper S3 steel frame and a carbon fork. Short/shallow drop bars, with clip-on aero bars. I used the aero bars a lot when I was riding alone, especially on flatter sections. The extra set of hand positions was almost as nice as the ability to take a more efficient aerodynamic position on the bike, and helped stave off muscle aches.

Tubular tires were a mistake. I love my Campagnolo Eurus tubular wheels, and tubular tires are a wonderful ride. However, I was so paranoid about flatting on the long loop, I carried two spare tires AND a can of Pit Stop. I did drop one of the tires after Loop 1, but this was too much weight (basically an extra pound) on Loop 1. Plus, I spent the whole long loop worrying about getting a flat (and then having to ride a serious distance on a spare tubular if the Pit Stop didn’t work). It was cool spotting the small handful of other riders using tubulars, and I enjoyed the camaraderie as I chatted with them, but it wasn’t worth it. I have a really good set of Rolf Prima clincher wheels; even with tires, they are 150 grams lighter than the Eurus. What I should do next year is ride the long loop, and all the trips around Loop 2, using clinchers. A brand new set of Continental Grand Prix 4000S 700x25c clincher tires tends to feel really good, and is reasonably close to the ride quality of tubulars. I will bring a tubular wheelset as a backup, and possibly to use on Loop 3. And, lesson learned: don’t hesitate to use Pit Stop when a tubular goes soft.

Clothing: I wore Hammer shorts all day and night. Short socks at the start, and white 1998 California Triple Crown jersey. I took lots of spare clothing with me, including a second pair of shoes, because storms were forecast and I figured having dry clothes would help morale. Late at night, I rode with a rain jacket attached to the Turbo Wing with X-straps. The rain never came, however.

Results: I tied for 65th among the 227 participants, or roughly the 70th percentile.

Looking Ahead: I need 359.4 miles to reach the Thousand Mile Club. If I again do three trips around Loop 2, that would require 22 trips around Loop 3. But the short loops got so monotonous, I think I should aim for four Loop 2s next year. That would require 19 Loop 3s. Hopefully, with the big Thousand Mile threshold out there as a goal, I’ll be able to keep focused and keep going.

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