Friday, January 23, 2015

Triple-D 2015: the Warmest, Fastest, Messiest Triple-D yet

I came into the Triple-D this year from a pretty low place. I always intend to train for this race starting in October, or even August, but life gets in the way. In particular, we moved my now 18-month-old daughter into a new daycare in September, and I think I've gotten 5 bouts of colds/flu's from this new 'germ factory' from then through the end of the year.

The end results is that I came into the Triple-D in arguably the worst shape I've been in in my 25 years of riding. Possibly, in Y2K when I pulled my quad and recovered by sitting on the couch eating chocolate chips and watching Star Trek for 3 months and gained 30 pounds was worse. Lately, my legs have been noticeably sore even after a moderately-paced, 2 hour ride which I only seem to get in every other week or so. I wondered, how long it would take until they just give out completely?

So I gave some thought to not attending this year at all, but in the end I figured the worst case scenario was that it would be a 3+ hour ride before I had to call the sag wagon. And getting out for a ride like that would be beneficial, so back I go to Dubuque.

I stayed at my parents cabin in Galena the night before, so I had a nice 45 minute drive to think about the race as I drove into town the morning of. This was going to be (yet another) weird one. High temperature around 40, and a low in the upper 20's. That's 30 degrees warmer than some of the Triple-D's I've ridden in the past. I knew warm temps and melting snow could make for some unpredictable trail conditions. Warmer temps meant I could wear less and pack lighter to be more efficient. But on the other hand, this was a 'I just want to finish' year for me, so maybe I should take extra gear to be ready for any circumstance. In the end I did a little of both, and it worked out fairly well.

This was a big year for the race with something like 120 starters in the bike category and enough runners to push the total participants over 200. Let me tell you, the sound of 240 fat tires rolling down the pavement during the neutral start is quite a cacophony. When we got to the point where we were supposed to separate out into pace groups, instead of people waiting for Lance to send us off as groups (top racers, racers, just-finishers, poker run riders, etc), people just started to take off. Well, when in Rome..., so I got into the mess too, over the tracks and onto the singletrack among the top 20 or so riders.

My race strategy was simple: get near the lead for the start of the race so you're not stuck behind poorly skilled riders or people with too much air in their tires at the beginning (most everyone has too much air in their tires), then once the course opens up take the pace back a bit to something I could sustain for several hours. I actually nailed this plan. At the start and in the singletrack, I didn't have anyone get in my way and I didn't get in anyone else's way. My riding but Tyler had gotten into the fray a few positions ahead of me, but he was off like a rocket and I didn't see him for long.

Once we got out into the open, I started getting passed pretty steadily. Its hard as a long-time racer to let this happen, there's a twinge every time that makes me want to chase, but I stuck to my plan and rode at my own modest pace. Nick passed me in the fairgrounds, and we continued on through old fields, pastures, corn fields, soybean fields and more pastures. Conditions on the ground were pretty good, a mix of firm snow and frozen (but slowly thawing) dirt, and I noted making a couple climbs that had always bee hike-a-bikes in the past.

Then my hip started to bother me. I have a problem in that my SI joint in my hip locks up every few months and makes my IT band very tight and can also screw up my spine alignment a bit. I hadn't been riding enough before race day to notice it was locked up! I started getting shooting pain radiating from my hip down to my knee and starting to go up my spine, so I had to stop just after crossing the road past the fair grounds to stretch it out. I had to stop again 15 minutes later at the top of one of the longest climbs of the race to stretch it again. It was so warm that I was actually choosing places that were open and exposed to the wind to stop and stretch rather than looking for somewhere sheltered like you usually will in the winter.

Well, I may be fat, out of shape and partially crippled, but I still have the skillz. I bombed the next downhill, one of the funnest parts of the course, and then actually managed to ride most of the way up the next hill through the woods, before having to stop and stretch again. Then we were out into one of the biggest open field stretch of the race, which is usually a drifted-in hike-a-bike, but I was able to ride almost all of it.

I used the pavement section that followed to eat a bit and drink, when we turned west on Humpke Rd. into the headwind, I was lucky enough to have a group of riders come up behind me on so I got in the pack and drafted a bit.

Lance the race organizer was in the group, and as we approached the turn off for the gnarly downhill B-road section of Humpke, he said something to the effect of "be careful on the downhill". At this point, I pulled ahead of the group and shouted back to Lance: "you said 'GO FASTER!', Right?! I couldn't be sure about Lance, but there was no doubt in my mind that I would take that downhill faster than the rest of the folks in that pack. As it turned out, Lance was a pretty good technical rider, and he knows every section of the course really well. I kept ahead of him for the first 50 ft once we actually got on the gnarly bit, but he got ahead of me there, and we were both skilled enough to stay out of each others way on this rutted, bumpy 2-track. It was so warm there was actually flowing water in the upper section of the road where there is usually overflow ice, so I thought conditions would be good all the way down and I kept the speed up. Unfortunately, there was overflow ice in the bottom 50' or so of the road. Going full speed into it, there was really nothing I could do but try to keep my wheel straight and my weight balanced squarely over the center of my bike and hope my tires didn't slide out underneath me. To my surprised this worked.

The man in blue, just after the fun part of Humpke Rd. Photo by Amber Bettcher.
A small group of us, again, including Lance formed up at the bottom of the descent into a pack and rode the short paved section to the Heritage Trail together. Once on the trail I was able to draft a bit and keep up with some of the people in this group for a while. Trail conditions were not looking good, getting kinda soupy, slush and a grindy mud formed out of the crushed limestone trail surface.  I said to Lance: "The question is now, how much do you hate your bike?" Riding through gritty mud like this can chew up a bike pretty bad. It got better in the next stretch that was more shaded, and Lance noted that large sections of the course were in the shade, though I questioned whether things would defrost even in the shade by afternoon. Overall the trail conditions were fairly firm (for the time being) so, I stopped and put 100 pump-strokes of air into each tire, stretched again and pedaled on. I also had to stop to partially straighten my derailleur hanger which had somehow gotten bent. I couldn't quite get it right so for the rest of the day I had to keep it in the small chain ring whenever I was riding less than 10mph otherwise there were some awful noises coming from my rear cluster as the pulley, chain and cassette interacted poorly.

There's not much to tell from the next 10-15 miles of the race. I was doing OK until the trail exited the Little Maquoketa River valley and got out on the flats. My hip an IT band were screaming at me after 10 miles of steady pedaling up a slight uphill grade, so I had to stop at the shelter just past Holy Cross Rd and stretch for a few minutes. I had to make at least 1 more stretch stop in the next 5 miles, just to get to the Dyersville. Trail conditions were getting really soft here so I rode on the grass growing on the very edge of the trail which kept me cleaner and rolling a little faster than I would be in the middle of the trail. Oddly, It seemed like a lot of people were not searching for the best line on the trail, riding right down the middle no matter what, which shows that a lot of people are not very experienced with snow riding. As I approached Dyersville the lead racers started coming back at me from the other direction. Tyler was storming along, probably 2-3 minutes back from the lead in 6th or 7th place.

Once at Chad's pizza I decided to settle in for a long rest and refuel. I had let myself bonk a little by not eating enough in the first half of the race. Us racers were making a really big mess, all of us covered in mud, but the staff at Chad's was really kind and friendly and seemed happy to clean up after us. Michael came in maybe 10 minutes after me and left long before I did. I stretched and stretched and ate 2/3rds of a cheese pizza they had baked up for me (the all-you-can-eat buffet only included pizzas with meat on them). I may have spent a total of 45 minutes there before heading out again.

I did NOT feel good for a while after the Dyersville stop. Having let my blood sugar drop too much before lunch, I may have gone the other way and eaten too much. I felt bloated, and oddly enough somewhat lightheaded and faint by the time I got back to Holy Cross Rd. At this point I was doubting I could make it to Durango, let alone finish. But I knew my best option was to keep pedaling, see if I got better, or at least get closer to Dubuque for an easier pick up from the SAG wagon. Slowly I felt better, but man the trail conditions did not help. There were stretches that were hard and firm where it was well shaded, but most of the course was a gritty, muddy soup at this point.

Mud was getting sprayed on my back and legs constantly, and if I rode faster than about 12mph it would spray up in my face too which drove me crazy. This kept me going slow as much as anything. So much water was getting on me that it was saturating my tights running down my legs into my socks and my waterproof boots were filling up with water like I had just jumped in a lake. At one point I decided to see if I could wring some of it out, so I stopped at a bench and run a disturbing amount of very muddy water out of my socks, and layered up a bit. Unfortunately my feet were soaked again in just a few minutes.

I was feeling better now, so I stormed into the Durango bar checkpoint and out again in a hurry, taking only a bottle of bottled water with me rather than taking the time to fill up my camelbak. The sun was still up, which means despite all my problems I was still covering ground faster than any other Triple-D I had done before. I had lost my headlamp at some point during the day, so I pushed on to try to get back to the finish before it got really dark.

At one point on this last stretch of the Heritage Trail a couple guys who were riding together passed me. One guy chose the left side of the trail and the other went right. They got about 30 feet in front of me as we approached a bridge, both of them held their line and rode right onto the crusty ice at the edges of the snowmobile tracks rather than the nice, dry rubber strip in the middle. The guy on the right slipped on the ice and took out the guy on the left like a spare on a seven-ten split. I manged to stop just before hitting them. They said they were alright so I rolled on, but I never did see them again.

My feet were getting really cold. The were literally sloshing around in a bath of water and as the air temperature dropped and I got more tired I wasn't keeping them warm. I could still feel my toes, but barely. So when it came time to ride up the bike path up the bluff, I decided to walk/run the whole way. My toes when from near-numb, to painful, to not bad in about 15 minutes. And honestly, it was kind of nice to walk for a while.

Nearing the top of the bluff, I got back on the bike. Twilight was setting in and it was pretty unfortunate that I didn't have a headlamp and that my taillight had failed due to all the muddy water slung up on it, seeing as I had several street crossing to negotiate. The air started to cool below freezing and things started to fail on my bike. The freewheel began to freeze up, the shifting began to slow down, water freezing in the cable housing, most likely.

Then everything went completely to pot. I stopped and got off the bike and realized that one of the pulleys on my derailleur was missing. Riding on the bent derailleur hanger all day must have put some force on it somehow and caused the screw that holds it in to unthread. This would be enough reason to quit if it had happened an hour or two earlier. But at this point I was only 2-3 miles from the finish, so I pressed forward, walking uphills, coasting downhill as the dark settled in to the wastlands between the strip malls of west Dubuque.

Eventually I managed to find a gear that I was able to pedal in, soft-pedal anyway, too much pressure and the chain would slip, since there was nothing wrapping it around the bottom of the cassette. So I could pedal on the flats and on the downhills and walk uphills. Of course, I could only ride as fast as I could see in the dark, but its amazing what you can roll over on a fatbike when you don't see it in the dark. I used my iPhone to light my way though one area where the route wasn't clear, but, let me tell you, an iPhone is no substitute for flashlight.

I walked most of the creek crossings because, well my feet were already soaked, I didn't want to risk slipping on icy rocks, and maybe this was an opportunity to wash my mud soaked boots off. Past the hobo camp, I was glad to find that no one was home. Over the tracks and then soft pedaled my way back up to the Best Western. I came in at 6:16 pm, 55th place (out of roughly 120 starters), 8 hours 16 minutes on the course.

Me and my bike just after finish. I look clean because I put this jacket on over top of my muddy torso when I stopped to look at my broken derailleur (note the sagging chain).
My buddy Tyler, he won it. The son-of-a-bitch rand down all those guys in front of him and put them behind him. He rides a 36 pound Pugsly, flat pedals, baggy shorts, no GPS, no power meter, no heart-rate monitor... not even a cyclocomputer, no training plans, no recovery drinks, compression socks, shaved legs, none of that. Just: Ride or Die.
My bike in the bike shower the following night.
Took three hours the following night to wash my bike and clothes. The chain was shot, the pulley replacements are $40 a set, I lost my pretty-darn new headlamp, tore a hole in my classic IceBike tights and my pedals will need an overhaul. I hand-washed the clothes to get the bulk of the mud and grit out, and then it took two times through the washer to get the remainder of the grit and silt out. Its enough to make me question whether I should have done this event, knowing what I know now... but really, its always worth it.