Friday, June 05, 2009

The Worst Journey in the World

By now I'm sure you've all heard about how I didn't finish at Dirty Kansa and had one of the worst races of my life as far as aftermath goes. That's true, but I suppose you'd like to hear the whole story. Here it is:

Friday night I slept fitfully. I'm not sure why. I knew that I was overconfident going in. I had done two previous 200 mile rides and both had gone very well. I knew that I could finish, but I also knew that 200 miles and 16+ hours in the saddle holds a lot of unpredictability. There are too many things that can go wrong. One guy I know has tried to do a double century on the road several times only to be thwarted by t-storms every time. That was one possible obstacle for the race, but others I was concerned about were flat tires, crashes, and the heat of the day. I was to have a couple of these problems, but I can now add a few more items to my list of concerns.

As I was saying, I slept poorly the night before and I didn't feel all that great in the morning, but that's not really a cause for concern on these rides. I rarely feel good in the morning and the best way to deal with it is to get on the bike and start riding. With a few miles under me I usually start to feel better. I can almost always make a good day out of a bad one. I drank a bottle of Boost and rode to the start line.

As we rolled out through town I felt like the pace was too fast. I wanted to take it easy while the rest of the field was pushing 20 mph on the streets of Emporia. It wasn't much of a problem to keep up though and I kept with the pack. I figured that the group would break up as soon as we hit the gravel and I could find my own pace. That wasn't to be. The first miles of gravel were flat and fast and the peloton (if I may) stayed tight. It wouldn't be until we hit the first hills about fifteen miles in that the group really started to break up and I could try to find my pace.

As soon as we got out of town the wind hit us. It was at least 20 mph or harder out of the WSW. The course steered us directly into it as we made our way to the Flint Hills rangeland. I am a good hill rider, I have a pretty good strength to weight ratio, but I am not a good wind rider, I have a poor strength to area ratio. Big guys with big legs are usually better at that. Still I was doing okay. When we got to the hills I would pass folks on the way up and I could usually keep them behind me. Still I knew that today wasn't going to be a fast one for me. I wasn't feeling real strong on the hills like I knew I should.

I passed a lot of people with flat tires, especially after water crossings. It seemed to me that people were shooting through the rocky crossings too fast and finding sharp chert to puncture tires or else pinch flatting on the rocks. I would slow down before the crossings, not wanting to crash on a hidden rock or get a flat this early in the race. Still, I was hoping that the tough new tires I had just put on the bike would protect me, even if I did make a bad decision. I rode with a fellow (sorry, I'm terrible with names) from Cedar Falls on a Salsa Fargo for quite a few miles through this first 60 mile section. He said something about how riding with someone makes the time go faster. I didn't say anything, but I know the opposite to be true for me. Riding alone is when I can "zone out" and ride hard for miles without noticing any time passing, my favorite part of any ride.

Most of the first section was through open range with huge stone slabs creating terraces across the hills. Few signs of civilization were evident outside of the road. The exceptions were radio towers on hilltops, oil wells, and one gigantic mansion in the middle of nowhere. Signs of cattle however were everywhere.

By the time I made it to the first checkpoint at mile 61 in the town of Cottonwood Falls I was spent. I hadn't managed to wake up and start feeling better like I usually do and the ride was already the hardest sixty miles of gravel I had ever done. It wasn't shaping up to be a good day. I thought about calling it quits, but I thought about Charlie and decided to take a nap before deciding. I slept for about twenty minutes under a tree and it felt great. After the nap I wasn't feeling good, but I knew I could make it another 42 miles to the next checkpoint. Knowing that the next section was more sheltered from the wind and flatter I opted not to fill my Camelbak to full. I left with 1.5 liters in the bag and a 20 oz. water bottle on the bike. I was using Ultima Replenisher in my Camelbak which has served me well on long hot rides in the past (including a previous DK), but it didn't seem to be doing its job as well on this ride.

The next forty-two miles took me along Diamond Creek road past ploughed fields and farm houses. The gravel would occasionally turn to asphalt for no apparent reason for a few hundred yards and then go back to gravel. As I figured this section was much easier than the first, but the heat was far worse. I wasn't visibly sweating, but I knew I was going to regret not having filled up all the way on water at Cottonwood Falls. I was still seeing riders stopped along the road with flats every few miles and a few times just lying in the shade taking a break. I was surprised since these 40 miles were so much easier and the roads so much better maintained. I was looking forward to breaking out of the valley and heading East so I could take advantage of the strong winds that had dogged us all morning. By the time I got there though I was disappointed to find that the winds had shifted to the North and were once again fighting me. As I made it to the second checkpoint at mile 103 at Council Grove I was pretty sure I was done. I had made a full century ride and knew I wasn't going to make the finish without some kind of miracle.

I mulled the options over and decided to call it quits when Dustin from Great Bend Kansas made me an offer. If I would ride with him to Alma, the third checkpoint at mile 142, his girlfriend would drive us back to Emporia (the start/finish). I accepted. Another 39 miles was possible. My knees hurt and I was tired, I wasn't really feeling like myself, but 39 miles is an easy ride, short almost.

We headed out in the heat and headed almost straight North into the wind. The wind wasn't strong, maybe 8-12 mph, but it was there and it was slowing us down. About 10 miles down the road we hooked up with Jim (?) from Lawrence Kansas and took our first break. I had planned to go 20 before stopping, but I wasn't going to argue. I felt like I needed one too. The next stop was about 7 miles down the road, and then about 5. We were getting worn down.

About that time, some twenty miles into the section we hit a road called, variously, "'Lil Egypt" or "Little Egypt." The smallest gravel was the size of a hen's egg and it was all the sharp edged chert that had been chewing up folks tires all day. Sure enough about half a mile along Jim got a flat. We all stopped and waited. Dustin helped Jim out a bit with a CO2 cartridge while I sat on a flat rock and put my head down to rest. After a few minutes we got back on the road again. Not a hundred yards down the road I flatted. I called out to the guys ahead of me, but they were already headed down a steep hill into a creek valley and likely didn't hear. I inspected the tire and found an inch long gash where a rock had gotten me. I first tried to boot the tire with a GU package, but it wouldn't stay in place with the undersized tube I had brought as a spare. Luckily the glueless patches I had were particularly tough plastic and about an inch square. I stuck one to the inside of the tire, only about a half inch slice showed on the inside, and hoped for the best. I pumped until I was tired of pumping, then pumped some more and called it good. I figured I only had about 35 psi or so in the tire (I had started the morning with 65), but I was concerned about the tube bursting through the gash in the tire. I would just have to ride carefully. I headed down the hill which was covered in fist size rocks and washed out from recent rains. I expected either a crash or another flat at any time. As I was riding up the other side of the tiny creek valley I came upon my two companions walking down towards me. I dismounted and we all walked back up to their bikes at the top. 'Lil Egypt road had several more steep washes to ride through and all were sketchy with their sharp and loose rocks. We walked most of the uphills and luckily we had no more flats.

We only had about fifteen more miles to Alma, but we came across at least two maybe three riders sitting alongside the road, cell phones out, waiting for rescue and a ride back to town. I was confident we'd make it without help. The course indicated for us to ride pavement for a couple of miles then turn off and ride another five or so miles of gravel before getting to the checkpoint, but according to the map we could cut off all of that gravel and just ride straight into town on pavement. I didn't want to be the first to suggest it, but someone did and the decision was made. We took the shortcut and called it quits at Alma. It felt a little odd to be giving up after only 140 miles, but I knew I didn't have it in me. I was done...or so I thought.

About 10 minutes after we stopped the gurgling in my stomach started. I hit the convenience store bathroom just in time. That taken care of Dustin handed me a Gatorade and we hopped in the truck for the hour long drive back to Emporia. We started with the windows down in the 90 degree heat, but just a few minutes down the road I was shivering with cold. I also became nauseous and I couldn't force myself to drink the Gatorade. With the windows rolled up Dustin and Jim were sweltering, but I was still cold. I knew this wasn't good. The only thing I could think was that a warm shower might cure me. By the time we got to the hotel I had to jump out and run for the toilet again. Still shivering, I found the warmest room in the hotel, a hallway with vending machines, and curled up to rest and try to find the strength to find a shower. Joel, one of the race directors found me there and ushered me to his room where he kindly offered his shower and found my finish line bag with my clothes in it. The shower felt good and took care of the shivering. I don't know how long I sat there, warm water running over me, I knew something was more seriously wrong than I had ever been through at a race. When I didn't think the shower was doing me any more good I got out, wrapped a towel around me and passed out on the floor. I don't know how long it was. Probably only fifteen minutes or so, but I was feeling well enough to walk around. I dressed and made my way outside to the finish area. Someone had kindly unloaded my bike and I laid down next to it and slept for a while. When I woke, Joel offered me some pizza and I forced down a slice, but couldn't do much more. I had just expended more than 10,000 calories on a hot day and I was having trouble eating and drinking. Not good. I got up and biked across the street to my hotel where I laid down in bed and once again had a bad night of sleep. I was afraid that the ride home would make me car-sick, but I just slept the whole way.

Since then I've been shivering, achy, and having gut pains on and off. I get a little better every day, but I don't seem to get better. I initially wrote it off as dehydration, but now I think maybe I got some contaminated food or water. It couldn't have come at a worse time. Now I'm weak and the idea of doing a long ride has absolutely no appeal for me. I couldn't make it more than ten or fifteen miles right now anyway. This is by far the worst I have ever felt after a race and I hope it never happens again. I enjoy being sore from exercise, but this is too much like being sick. Hopefully within the next few days I'll make a full recovery and I can get back to biking and more hopefully roller-skiing in anticipation of this winter's Arrrowhead.


Simmons said...

Sorry to hear you had a bad race, but glad to hear you are feeling somewhat better. It'll turn around. It always does.

Paul said...

Matt, you had a great race considering how you were feeling! I am glad you are feeling better now!

mr. f. g. superman said...

Dear oh dear. Hope all is well by now. Hope to see you soon.