Sunday, January 31, 2010

Road Pixie's Riding History

I started riding regularly at a brisk age of 6 (when the training wheels came off). My dad was a marathon runner and to spend time with him, I would ride my bike next to him as he ran. His training runs were in the 5-10 mile range. We lived in southern Ohio which is very hilly and at the time was bike path free. Fortunately, we lived in the outer burbs where there were few cars. Nonetheless, the planning of the route using a paper map and the execution (using hand-written or memorized directions) was big part of my early days. I tried to be a runner too and finished my first 10K run at age 8, but I had lots of knee issues and the bike seemed like a better fit for me.

When I was 11 years old, I had a 10-speed purple Schwinn that I loved dearly. In fact, as a 12 year old in 1981, I would ride my Schwinn over 20 miles to the local theater to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark at the bargain price of $1.50. Then I would ride back. I The route was hilly, highly traffic intensive and temps were sometimes in the 90s with high humidity and I never had any issues whatsoever with making the distances. In fact, I marvel now at the audacity of doing the route at all. My mother now says she must have been nuts to let me do it. I never had my Schwinn fitted to me, never had bike shorts, never had a water bottle (they didn't put those on kids 10 speeds in the 70s). For a 12 year old, these things were not necessary for the route. The high traffic meant there were lots of traffic lights and my lack of a bottle meant that I stopped all the time to find drinking fountains. I was 12 so my bum was the size of a salad plate and I weighed about 90 lbs, not a lot of pressure there. The many hills also meant that I pedaled standing up all the time.

When I was 13 years old, the Schwinn got stolen and I saved my pennies to buy a new bike. My new bike (which I still own and ride) was a Austrian Puch road bike. Measuring the bike today, I see that it was far too large for me and the bike shop actually hacked the seat so that it was really far forward to accommodate shorter legs. I suppose that this was the smallest road bike they had at the time. Getting off the bike required care to avoid slamming my most humble of parts into the top tube. Nonetheless, I was able to get used to the ride and continued my riding in the 20-40 mile range up until I was about 16 (and got my driver's license). This bike did not fit me, yet I did successfully avoid too many issues by virtue of the hacked seat and being in my early teens. But I do remember that there was a significant break-in period and that I did not love this bike quite the way I had loved my Schwinn.

So we flash forward many years. Between 1982 and 2004, I bought only one other bike, a Trek 2100 which I got in my 20s. It was also over sized (a 56 cm) because I had ridden an over sized bike for so long that anything else felt wrong. In 2005, I finally got back to riding as a major hobby and after my first 50 miles ride, experienced the soreness that most people think of when the think about bike seats.

At this point, I was 35 years old and no longer had the advantage of the recovery that you automatically get when you are a teenager. After only 3 months, I was pushing into the 70 mile range with lots of pain in my bottom and lower back. I had to step back and assess the situation. I read lots of articles, read books and visited a local bike shop. This was partially successful. The following suggestions were made:

1. New bike
2. New shorts (mine were 15 years old, but at least I had bike shorts at this point)

This bike was all carbon as I was assured that carbon and its dampening properties would solve many of my issues. I even had the bike fitted. Unfortunately, the fitter took the textbook approach which said that someone of my height and flexibility should be laid out flat like a Tour De France rider. And the new bike, though smaller, was still too long in the top tube. Even 5 years ago, there were still very few options for the "ladies". I spent a very painful year on this bike, but did my first centuries. I didn't realize how painful they were at the time.

My first century connected a couple of my favorite short routes with exploration of the eastern Twin Cities. I had only recently moved to Minnesota, so I knew almost nothing about local geography. I got paper map and planned everything as I had for years. I planned water stops about every 30 miles. The route looped Lake Minnetonka (about 30 miles) then proceeded along various bike trails to St Paul where it continued to the bluffs along the St Croix River and looped back to Woodbury where it ended at a friend's house. I rode it on a summer day in about 10 hours and loved it. However, at 70 miles my knee hurt and did the whole thing on 5 gels which led to me bonking on the unexpectedly hilly terrain I found in the east. I recovered using my fifth gel to get me the last 12 miles and it was a week before I could get on my bike again. I started riding to work regularly in 2005 and set a personal goal of riding outside at least one time during every week of the year in 2006. You can imagine that I spent quite a bit of $$ on bike clothing to accomplish that goal since it included a couple of rides that were sub-zero. I also learned to ride (from the commute) on snow, ice, and slush.

I rode the Minnesota Ironman Bike Ride (100 miles) in April of 2006. This day was in the low 40s with driving rain and crippling headwinds. I went to the ride alone and at one of the rest areas at 60 miles, noticed long lines to the SAG wagons. Dripping wet riders looked completely miserable indoors as they sipped cocoa. I sat down and several people announced they were quiting. At this point, I was wearing scuba gloves and a garbage bag over my torso and I felt like the stop itself was some kind of test. I stood up and said "I'm not dead yet" and walked out to finish the ride. As I road out of town, I was the only one to leave. But about 5 minute later, I heard something behind me and sure enough, it was one of the guys from the table. "Well, the next stop is only 10 miles away," he said, "and after what you said, I figure this is better than waiting for a bus". We worked together against the rain and wind with each one taking a turn at the front for a couple of minutes. After an hour, we got to the next rest stop and he thanked me for convincing him to continue as he boarded the bus. I still had 30 miles left, but there were others and I hooked up with some of them. Together, we all got to end of the ride. About 10 miles from the finish, the clouds broke and rays of sunlight appeared. I felt like a vampire waking up in full sun - it was dazzling. Then, as soon as it came, the clouds slammed shut and it poured harder than I have ever seen rain pour, so hard that water washed over my rims and it was hard to steer. We made it and that ride may is one of the finishes I remember most vividly; it was an accomplishment, a feat to be at the end.

Between 2004 and 2009, I made some friends in the cycling community who helped me. In particular, credit goes to one of my best friends, Rick, who liked riding rides far above the 100 mile mark. The two of us fell into a real sweet spot with rides between 120-180 miles. This is really a sweet spot for distance riding since it is a range that can almost always be done in the summer daylight. The two of us did quite a bit of exploration and riding in 2007-2008. He continues to be my main long-distance riding buddy. I also met George, currently on the TCBC board, who bailed me out of an asthma attack on a hot ride in 2006. He's a ride leader and though long distance isn't a thing for him, I really like riding shorter rides with him (especially in the hills of Wisconsin).

2009 was my first year to try randonneuring. I had heard of Paris-Brest-Paris, but in 2008, TCBC started hosting brevets and this seemed to be a good intersection between the two kinds of rides I was doing. I did 2304K of brevets and permanents in 2009. It was also my first year to log over 5,000 miles. I decided to ride my first 1200K in 2010, the Cascades.

So here we are today. I've made some major errors and had some major triumphs. And there is only one thing about the sport of randonneuring and long distances that towers above everything else in terms of importance "It's all in your head".

Road Pixie's Advice to the new Randonneur/Randonnueuse

Recently, Road Pixie went to the annual TCBC recognition dinner. Normally, I hate these things, but BigG was going along with other friends, so I thought it would be fun. The idea of riding such long miles turned out to be deemed a little off the wall even by bike club enthusiast standards. In fact, the number one exclamation used was something along the lines of "How can you sit on bike saddle for 250 miles without turning your nether regions into hamburger?" When I thought about the answer, I realized just how personal and multi-facited the answer really was.

So I thought I would post some of my more hard-fought discoveries with the caveat that all these apply to me and not necessarily anyone else. Let's face it, after about 10 hours in the saddle (or doing anything), everything is personal. So what works for me, might not work for you. That said, following posts will detail not only what I tend to do now, but how I arrived at what I do. Perhaps that may help others in starting themselves down the path of endless miles.

I've noticed that many tips and hints are organized by a general category (clothing, nutrition, bike fit, etc). That does work, but what I have found over the years is that those are categories of solutions instead of being categories of problems. One of the hardest things for me was to figure out what the problem actually was. On the surface, it seems so simple; cycling is a physical activity, so ride miles, get a better bike, get the bike fit, eat right all seem obvious. What I found was that the various solutions all have different impacts on the different problems and sometimes solutions are complementary and sometimes they contradict each other.

In order of importance, here are the problems that I have had to deal with as I went from riding a few miles to many, many miles at one time.
  • Head
  • Stomach/Metabolism
  • Legs and feet
  • Butt/Posterior
  • Upper body (that's waist up)

The following posts will detail the strategies that I used to address these problems. It was only after I really got them under control that I realized just how personal the combination of solutions was to get all of the problems balanced. Utlimately, if you want to ride 600+ miles on your bicycle in 70+ hours, you are not going to feel fabulous all the time. In fact, at some point on every ride, there will likely be a massive low in at least one of these areas. So understanding how to prioritize a fix is critical and developing your own personal ability to identify the problem and the most optimal fix at the time. Training for long distances, for me, was more about figuring out how to problem-solve than it was about getting in shape.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

New Friends in Arizona: Casa Grande Ruins 200K

"You've got the best quads I've seen in a long time". It just goes to show that sometimes when you are really uncomfortable and thinking about your lackluster abilities that some unknown randonneur will just make your day. So here is the story.
I had been planning on doing the Casa Grande Ruins 200K on Jan 2 since completing Mt Lemmon. After copious planning, disaster struck just before Xmas when a virulent case of "knee"-monia set in. Without warming, my knee swelled up and I found out that I had some major issues with adductor magnus (aka the groin), gastrocnemius and soleus (aka the calf brothers) and the infamous IT Band. After 2 different therapeutic masseurs and a PT clucked their tongues, I was sure my 200K was doomed. I spent days doing the kind of stretching that I previously thought was only achievable by a rubber band. And gradually, things started to unlock and I could at least walk. So I flew to Arizona on New Years Eve promising everyone (including IronK) that I would not ride if I was in pain.
Dad picked me up at the airport after I celebrated ringing in the new year on the tarmac. New Year's Day, we went for a warm up ride with Dad's friend, Lemonade Guy (so named because he sells lots of lemonade). Maybe it was the excitement, maybe it was the nice warm temperature, but the knee seemed pretty okay. I scanned the elevation picture for the ride again. At only 1400 or so feet, this was going to be pancake flat. I decided to try my luck.
Dad dropped me off in Casa Grande at about 7:00 am. I spent most of the time stretching everything I could think of (including things that didn't hurt). It was only 45 degrees or so at the start which frankly seemed really warm after seeing that the temperature at home was -15. I wore tights anyways on principle.I swore to myself that I would start the brevet very slowly and ride for at least half an hour to get the knee really loosened up. This proved very hard with no less than 40 people all at a very exciting start with the sun coming up on a beautiful sky and nice smooth pavement. I quickly fell off the back riding at a even cadence in a really low gear. The route first headed north up Pinal Ave before turning east and heading up a very scenic highway. At this point, I knew that the only real "hill" of the ride was approaching. I busied myself watching giant cactus and some really interesting boulder formations in the hills surrounding the road. With the sun now up, there were some really pretty shadows across the rocks and the hills blocked the sun from being in my eyes too much. I was feeling a little breathless and started to wonder if I was having a bad day, then I realized it was because the hill had actually started about a mile before - duh!
There was a really nice view at the top of the valley below. I passed a guy with a flat but he smiled said he was almost done changing it. With the hill out of the way and the knee feeling pretty good, I breathed a big sigh of relief. I started gradually picking up my pace as I rode through what they call the cotton belt. Cotton is a big crop in this area and harvest must have been recent because there were cotton "balls" all over the side of the road. Made me just a little nostalgic for the snow back home. I pulled into the Casa Grande Ruins at around 9:30 and saw several others in various states of visiting the control. I have to confess that I didn't spend as much time at the ruins as I might have originally planned, but they did look really neat and I plan on returning at some point as a tourist. As I dismounted my bike, I noticed that even though it wasn't hurting while I was riding, my knee was quite stiff. I stretched more and started off.
About 10 miles later I noticed that I really wasn't able to push it quite as much as I had been. At this point, 2 riders passed me including another woman (something I don't see much of). I followed them for a couple of miles before introducing myself. They were Bob and Lorraine from Vail (the AZ version). Lorraine was on her very first brevet, though Bob was a PBP ancien. I got to chatting with them and we wound up working as a team for the rest of the brevet. Amazingly, they used to live in the Twin Cities (very close to me) - small world.The three of us reached the bike shop at about 11:30 and by this time, the knee was starting to hurt. I made a mad dash for the advil bottle in my pack and stretched more. By this time, temps were in the 60's so I stripped down to shorts and a wind vest.The three of us left the bike shop just before 12 for the 36 mile out-and-back trip on Indian 15. The first 8 miles of this are on some really gnarly pavement. The jarring was hell on the knee so I attempted to speed up with the hopes it might be smoother (it wasn't). Finally, at mile 8, we entered the reservation and the pavement improved considerably. We all breathed a major sigh of relief.
The next 27 miles were beautiful with rocky hills, cactus, desert and at least 40 border patrol SUVs. I knew that this section was slightly uphill until the turnaround at mile 88, but hadn't realized how much of a toll that would take. There were also a few rollers that had me humming. I confess that Lorraine and Bob totally pulled me through this section - I'd would have been in considerable pain at the turn around had they not been there. I rode the final 5 miles to the turnaround using only my right leg.As it was, I was still in some pain at the turnaround - swelling had gotten worse as well. I got off my bike,walked over to Susan's pickup and out came what truly has to be the greatest cycling complement I have ever heard, "You've got the best quads I've seen in a while". Boy that perked me up along with seeing several others from Mt Lemmon who all said hi. This is all part of the camaraderie aspect of the sport that I personally find to be a real treat. After having some really nice turkey wraps, Bob, Lorraine and I headed back.
I had some real trepidation about my knee, but the rest of the ride was really a gradual downhill and we made really good time without pushing it too hard. Bob paused to take a telephoto shot of a house up in the hills (we debated whether it was actually there or not). By the time we got back to the bike shop it was about 4:30 and the swelling had disappeared from my knee. In fact, it felt better than it had all day. Go figure!
Major kudos to those that helped me out on this ride. I think I would have finished, but I would definitely not have had as much fun. It doesn't always work out that people hang as a team, but this was really a treat. I hope to see both of them for the 300K in February as well as the many other new friends in AZ.