As I prepared for the Fireweed 200 mile solo ride across some gorgeous Alaskan scenery, my mind was scattered uneasily across various concerns. Thanks to my excellent coach Jason Boynton, I knew my physical preparation was more than adequate - I had faith in my legs.
But what about my nutrition? Would my preparation and testing of foods during longer rides translate to what my body needed on those last 100 miles? My training had pushed me to peak for this 200 miles, as it's just not practical to train doing 200 mile rides over and over with an eye towards speed. This isn't training for a fast 60 miler, therefore the nutrition remains a bit of a question mark for that second 100 miles.
Where would my mind go? I had originally thought about loading up an ipod and zoning out, but decided against it. With all the scenery, riders from across the world, and solitude available, it seemed wise to just embrace what was given. Don't box it out and also enjoy the fact that it's one fewer thing to carry. So I decided on letting my mind drift into any rabbit hole of thought it desired. Find the bottom, remember that distant past, think about that guy from grade school on facebook I ought to email, compose the email, and then drift to the next idea. I had over 12 hours of pedaling to swallow. Let the mind run free.
What about the weather? 13 hours of Alaskan weather means anything is on the table. Coupled with the fact that I would be starting at 6 am, I needed to dress for a crisp morning, a potentially hot afternoon, and random rain whenever Alaska feels like it. What to choose to wear, and where to pack it?
As the ride approached people would ask me if I was excited. "Not really, though I know I'll enjoy it when I get going." The nerves and stakes were high. What about a crazy mechanical in the middle? What about the mental defeat if I had to withdraw? As in everything in life, just worry about what you can control and do your best.
I awoke in my tent at Sheep Mountain at 5 am, greeted the blaring sunlight that was there at midnight when I closed my book, and began swallowing my PBJ on wheat. Nutrition plan #1 was to have easy, good food that would have some time to digest before my legs started spinning. Very few riders were stirring across the sea of tents, bikes, and vehicles that littered the gravel airstrip. I had elected (almost embraced) the option of leaving in the first wave at 6 am rather than the slated 8 am start. Better to just wake and get it on. I slowly took my time dressing, filling water bottles, checking the bike again, and making final choices about what to wear. The sunny 50 degree blue skies made it easy -- arm warmers, knee warmers, short sleeve wool jersey, and a balled up rain jacked in my jersey pockets. I crammed some gel packs, a second spare tube, and a few cliff bars into the other pockets and shoved my dew glistened tent into my truck bed to dry. With each of my three jersey pockets bursting I walked over to the starting line happy that I was not rushed. I mingled with the 30 other early birds, readjusted the velcro on my shoes a few more times, and pedaled off at 6:02 under a waving Alaskan flag.
Thankfully the hills began by simply rolling and the wind was at my back, giving me the chance to set a smooth, swift pace which found me whispering a mantra inside my mind. "I'm doing it. I prepared properly and I am doing it. Exhale." I soon relaxed, began digesting the mountains, tundra, and glaciers, and realized that most of the people on the course doing the 200 mile ride were members of a team. I watched them swap riders every 2 miles or so and quickly embraced the fact that they would be passing me with their multiple, fresh legs. I was in the minority -- 200 miles solo without a support car. The food stations every 30 miles would be enough. I am ready.
The nutrition concerns ended up being moot. I ate conservatively, drank HEED, and never took more than a few minutes break at each rest stop. My body was ready to roar and I gave it no opportunities to take any detours.
We were instructed that at the 80 mile point there was a 17 mile stretch of intermittent construction, concluding with a 2 mile stretch of severe construction. We were also told that because 24 hours earlier a rider on the 400 mile solo (what!?) ride had taken a header on a bridge within that 17 mile stretch, we were allowed and encouraged to simply load into our support cars and drive that 17 miles. A wise choice to be sure by the ride officials, but in my case it was not an option. If a ride was not available, we were told to keep it safe and pedal up to those final 2 miles where we could throw our bikes in the construction crew's pilot car, which is what happened for me. So I added 15 miles of pedaling to my time that many folks did not, chatted with the Palmer girl that was driving the truck for the road crew, and swallowed the fact that my legs were ready for a longer ride than everyone else. I did the work and could happily handle doing it the longer way.
This ended up being the sunniest and hottest day on record for this ride, and by noon I had rolled off my arm warmers. My legs felt great, 100 miles were down, and it felt like a hot Wisconsin ride. My mental game plan ended up being foolish though. I spent my thoughts planning the next time I should drink, the next time to have a gel shot, monitoring my heart rate, and marking how many miles away the next food stop was. I realized a few times I was drinking too often or not enough, so a schedule seemed wise. Fixating my mind of the next 3 tasks within the next 20 minutes was more than enough to chip away at this long day.
Upon mile 125 or so I realized that I was quickly running out of water, the sun was high and hot, and the next rest stop was 14 miles away. This was the kind of nutritional blunder that could derail the next 6 hours. Thankfully there are random support cars every 10 minutes on the road awaiting their riders so I picked a friendly looking one and stopped with a request for water. Out came a smile and 2 chilled water bottles from a large cooler in the back of his Subaru. I thanked him again and again, and he told me he knows exactly how it goes some days. It was all my body needed as I made it over the hump and soon hit that rest stop 14 miles later.
While scarfing down watermelon slices at the support tent at mile 140 a rider asked the staff if they could sell him a tube. They told him they had none. He had used his spare and while running fine now, he was nervous without an extra tube.
I reached into my jersey. "Here you go, take this one."
"Are you sure? I don't want to take your spare."
"No problem. This is my second spare," as I motioned to the small bag under my seat.
This event is filled with nothing but great folks with great attitudes, and I hope I did a little to keep that going.
As the miles ticked over 150 and the slow climb to Thompson Pass began, the wind shifted into an endless punch in the face. Information at support stops told of clouds drifting across the surface of the road at the top of the pass along with the still present snow drifts. Becky, Lesley, and Henry gave me a quick, happy rest and water stop before I hit that final 50 miles.
The climb was a beast, I wished I had a triple for a 60 minute window, and all the rumors were true. The pass had blotches of snow across the landscape, clouds nipped across my grinding legs, and Worthington Glacier was out in all of its glory. I pulled out my rain jacket for the first time of the day in anticipation of the wind on the descent, and quickly zipped down the mountain. The jacket fluttered in the 42 mph speeds and it sank in that I would be finishing this ride and that my nutrition and mind were everything they needed to be today.
One hour later I arrived in Valdez, inhaled a Caribou sausage and Silver Salmon fillet, and took the greatest shower I have had in long time. In the end I pedaled for 12 hours and 45 minutes, had no mechanical problems, and realized a sense of accomplishment that you just can't explain until you are standing in it.
(Full photo set here)