Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A Perfectly Logical Obsession

The idea

“A perfectly logical obsession” - Bob Brudvik’s response to a text message from me at the end of April this year.



We were fresh off our attempt to ride a 24 hour 600k brevet. Although we didn’t make that goal, crazy ideas began to germinate. Less than two weeks later, I was starting to think about attempting to ride the 2015 Paris-Brest-Paris in Charly Miller time (56:40 or less). Nutty, I thought. “Perfectly logical,” Bob said. 

At the time, however, other cycling business dominated my thinking. After a wonderful week at PAC Tour’s Desert Camp in Arizona in the spring, I had flirted with the idea of, and ultimately signed up for, PAC Tour’s “Elite” Transcontinental, an 18-day tour across the United States from San Diego, California to Tybee Island (Savannah), Georgia. That I knew four other Seattle riders on the tour, all of whom were much faster riders than I, only augmented the trepidation with which I approached that adventure. 

Mississippi River
On arrival in San Diego, Bob, who likes to plan a couple rides ahead, asked me about the Charly Miller idea. Much more worried about getting across the country, I deferred: “we can discuss that after we cross the Mississippi.” But as anyone who has ridden across the US knows, and as I was learning, it’s a really, really big country. I reached the Mississippi River still uncertain of the outcome of the tour. Indeed, the longest day of the tour was still a couple days away – nearly 200 miles into Camden, Alabama. So I deferred again, somewhat more colorfully: “F--- off; we can discuss that after Camden.” 


Atlantic Ocean
Camden came and went and before long we reached the Atlantic. Deferring the discussion was no longer an option. And to be honest with myself, I realized that accomplishing one audacious-seeming goal only emboldened me to attempt another. So I was in. 

Nothing in my long history of riding 1200 kilometer brevets suggested that this would be easy. I looked back over my times. Since 1999, I had finished thirty-five 1200km events (plus a 1400). My average time for the 1200s was a hair under 84 hours. I had finished under 80 hours exactly three times (Canada’s Rocky Mountain 1200 in 2002, Japan’s Hokkaido 1200 in 2010, and the Rocky Mountain again in 2012). None of those rides had the elevation gain of Paris-Brest-Paris. I had finished a 1200 in under 70 hours exactly zero times. Under 60 hours? Hah. My fastest 1000k took me longer than that (64:15). And on four previous PBPs my average finish time was 85:38; my fastest was 84:29. 

I needed some encouragement, reasons to be hopeful, a plan, and a lot of help. 

The Planning

Encouragement came readily. Bob never wavered in his insistence that we could do it. (We already knew that Bob could do it; he had made the Charly Miller Society at PBP 2011 with a strong group of SIR friends). He had watched me crawl across Alabama and Georgia at the end of the cross-country tour and he still thought it possible. Although hoping to keep the whole thing pretty low profile, I asked a few friends. They said “go for it.” Well, actually Mike Dayton said “Hell, yeah!” Joe Platzner tried to dope out if I really wanted it; concluding that I did, he cheered me on.

On-bike times.
Looking for hope, I took a more detailed look at my previous dozen or so 1200s. Because I had used a GPS on those, I knew how much time I spent on the bike riding. The picture was not too pretty. Ride time was 53.5-61.8 hours for all but three of the events. Two of those three were extremely flat (less than 5000 feet of climbing), but one – the California Central Coast 1200 in 2014 – had PBP-like elevation gain and I had 51:47 of ride time. 

What if I could cut that down to 50 hours, spend only 3 hours at the controls, and limit sleep to a two hour break for a nap? That would be good enough.

Every piece of that was a stretch. I felt that I had performed at the top of my ability on the 3CR and dropping two hours of ride time would not be easy. I rode that ride with three great overnight sleep stops (> 5 hours every night, as I recall). Surely limiting sleep to a 90 minute nap in a two-hour stop would slow me down. And three hours of off-bike time spread over 15 controls? Wow. (By comparison, Bob and his SIR Charly Miller cohorts in 2011 had spent seven hours off the bike with support.) Certainly I would need help. 

Chris and Marko Baloh
With seven PBP’s worth of experience between us, we figured that we’d need support at the controls. Bob went right to work on that project. He lined up Chris Ragsdale and a friend. Really?!? Chris Ragsdale?!? The fastest American finisher at PBP in 2011? The guy that would have been the first finisher but for being led off course by a motorcycle “escort”? Yeah, that guy. Holy smokes, as Andy would say. I didn’t know Matt Smith, but I did know that he had crewed for Chris on RAAM and that Bob had spoken highly of him. So we had the resources we needed to keep us moving, . . . but could I move fast enough? (I wasn’t worried about Bob’s speed.) 

Fully aware that I knew nothing about training for speed (or about training at all, for that matter – I just “ride lots”) and even less about getting ready for a specific event, I sought professional help. (And not the kind my family thought I needed.) My one previous attempt (thirteen years ago) to work with a coach had failed miserably – my fun activity turned into work and not only did I fail to stick with the training plan, I also just quit riding my bike for weeks. I didn’t know very much about coaches, but one had done well for friends of mine and was highly respected by people whom I respected. So I sent Michelle Grainger from Boulder an email asking if she’d take on a two-month project to deliver me to PBP in the best possible form. 

Help. Please.

Michelle agreed and we were off. Will spare gory details on the training plan, which she developed as we went along. Essentially, we assumed the endurance was there already. Michelle focused on some intensity work and also a lot of recovery and rest. I chose to trust her recommendations implicitly, despite my nagging concerns that I was not doing enough. Although I understood why the volume of riding would be much lower than that to which I was accustomed, I still felt that I wasn’t working hard enough with the intensity drills. These varied from hill repeats to sprint drills, but never amounted to a lot of time/distance. Most of the time, I felt pretty good about progress, but not always. (From a mid-July email to Michelle: “Today really felt like a setback. By the end of today’s ride I was overheated, salt-encrusted, bonk-y, and discouraged. And a little mad at myself for mistakes made.”) Other days were awesome – on some of the “go hard” days, my Strava uploads were scattered with PR segments, which felt good.

The lower volume and strict limits on riding became a recurring source of amusement for my riding buddies. “Want to ride a 200k?” “No, I’m only allowed 60 minutes today.” Eventually they would just ask: “What does Colorado HQ have on your plan for tomorrow?” I was completely on board with letting CO HQ call the shots, however, and suppressed my urge to ride up to Mt. Rainier, go out on a 1000k, pre-ride the 300k I was organizing, and any number of other fun ride plans. On the other hand, I loved the 20-30 minute “easy spinning” days that allowed for a ride to coffee or beer.

In addition to lining up support and training, I obsessed over equipment. Bob encouraged me to bring my carbon Parlee rather than my usual travel coupled titanium travel bike. He said that I was faster on it. Although I strongly suspected that the bike choice didn’t matter, I couldn’t quite argue with the record – my fastest 1200 (Rocky Mountain 1200 in 2012), one of my strongest 1200s (California Central Coast Randonnee in 2014), my fastest 600 (in Wenatchee in 2015), my fastest 300k (a permanent in late 2014), my PAC Tour Transcontinental, and other good rides had all been on the Parlee. So I decided to suck up the airline bike fees and take the non-coupled bike. 

In an obsessive effort to avoid mechanical issues during the ride, I outfitted the bike with lots of new stuff. With the help of Joe Platzner and my friends at Element Cycles in Redmond, the bike soon sported new shifters, new cables, new derailleurs, new chain, new cassette, new bar tape, new tires, newly rebuilt pedals, and new brake pads. Cranks, bottom bracket, and hubs were inspected. Sunday best wheels (Enve 4.5s) would make the trip, accessorized with new Continental GP 4000SII tires and latex tubes. Knowing that we would have support, I packed spares of all sorts – spokes, components, wheels, pedals, cleats, etc., etc. 

Parlee Tour - fully loaded
Over a number of pre-PBP rides, I fine-tuned the list of what I would carry on the bike. I opted for the Revelate Designs “Gas Tank” top tube bag and a small Ortlieb waterproof saddle bag. I added a strap for my reflective vest and one for my Spot satellite tracker. At the last minute, I chickened out on carrying a minimalist pump in favor of a Lezyne mini floor pump style pump strapped to one of my seatstays. I opted for battery lights front and rear. I decked out a raincoat with a ton of 50mm wide reflective tape to use in place of the reflective vest in case of nasty weather. In the bags, I would carry tubes (2), CO2 cartridges (2), CO2 inflator head, patch kit, valve extenders, tire boot, chain quick link, duct tape, multi-tool, sunscreen, lip balm, battery and cable to keep GPS running, electrolyte tablets, anti-inflammatories, caffeine tablets, and a few bits of emergency food. Other food would go in the jersey pockets. 

No surprise: it’s a lot easier to have a light load on your bike if you have support.

At Michelle’s urging, I thought a bit (well, a lot, really) about how I would handle my nutritional needs during the event. In a dramatic departure from my usual approach – eat real food, and lots of it – I planned instead to bring “bike food” along. The plan was to take on only 250-300 calories/hour during the ride. I would drink an Ensure at each control stop and then start out the next leg with a bottle of Perpetuem (270 calories and 50mg of caffeine) and enough other food in my pockets to reach the calorie target (a mix of Honey Stinger chews and waffles, Power Bar protein bars, and Clif “Builder Bars”). Bob and I figured that Chris and Matt could add some real food to the mix from time to time at the controls, but I wanted to be confident about the rate of calorie intake. 

With the lower than expected volume of riding, I had plenty of time to obsess over details beyond just training, equipment, and nutrition. I prepared an iPad for Chris and Matt with the support car route loaded into a mapping application and a couple of bookmarks for locating us via my Spot tracker. I loaded the PBP route into my Garmin GPS and into my phone.

I did about a million iterations of a spreadsheet with planned speeds/times for each leg and amounts of time off the bike. Lacking any hard data on my likely speeds over a non-stop 1200, I opted to pick two default speeds – one out to Brest and one back - and then adjust the speed on each leg downwards by a factor that depended on the climbing/distance ratio for that leg. I tweaked the numbers until I was close to 56:40 (53:27 riding / 3:00 stop time / no sleep). For comparison, I checked the overall time at each stage with Bob’s groups’ times from 2011. It tracked reasonably well. Bob and Chris both felt that the speeds were too low, especially at the beginning of the ride, but I thought it better psychologically (for me, at least) to have a plan against which we might build some margin early in the ride than to have a (possibly) more accurate plan that we were more likely to fall behind.

Sleep presented another planning puzzle. We strongly suspected that we wouldn’t have time. (Bob’s group had slept maybe 10 minutes in 2011). Michelle believed that I could not afford not to sleep. Would a good sleep stop pay off with increased speed? I had no idea. One consequence of my somewhat faster brevets over recent years is that I slept more on longer events than before. As a result, I had lost experience about how I would handle a lack of sleep. We settled on a plan of sorts. We had access to beds at around 800km. (Rick and Barb had rented a gîte on the course). If we were doing really well, we’d sleep a couple hours. We were not at all sure that we could make up those hours with road speed in just 400km remaining, but it was possible – the difference between 25km/hr and 22km/hr, for example, would be 2:20. If we didn’t feel that we had time to risk, we’d keep going. (And if we were completely off any possibility of making CM time, then we’d have a good long sleep and a nice ride to a 79 hour finish.). With few good options for sleep during the ride, I resolved to get as much sleep and rest as possible leading up to PBP and as much sleep as I could manage immediately prior to the ride.

To supplement all the planning, I did a lot of hoping. Seemed like a good use of time. 

The Event 

I love PBP. Love the traditions of it. Love the spectacle. Love the involvement of the local residents. Even like the route. But most of all I enjoy the big randonneur reunion that happens there. I know randonneurs from all over the country and the world from my travels (and theirs). And many more from social media or from reading their stories. The days before the start of PBP passed in a blur of faces of old friends.

Colorado HQ
In front of the Campanile hotel one day, I ran into Coach Michelle. (In a nice little PBP vignette, I found her with her husband Steve, long-time randonneur and RUSA volunteer John Lee, first-time PBP’er Terri, and SIR’s Big Mark). I appreciated the opportunity to thank her for her work in preparing me for the event and just to chat in person after all the calls and emails over the prior two months. I confessed that I felt a bit anxious about the event. Not one to miss the opportunity for a little coaching, Michelle opined that the anxiety merely reflected the intensity of my desire to achieve the Charly Miller goal. She encouraged me to “be in the moment” during the ride (“whatever that means,” I thought) and wished me success.

Bob and I had arrived in France a few days before the ride so we could get ready for the ride without stress. We took care of the necessities – building up the bikes, getting rental car, purchasing supplies, organizing our stuff – at a relaxed pace. 

Sightseeing took a back seat to ride preparation; Bob and I managed one trip into Paris, including a nice lunch with SIR buddies Adam Morley and Vincent Muoneke. Remembering that one of the critical factors for the ride would be the ability to ride with little or no sleep and that one of the tactics was to sleep as much as possible, I tempered my usual inclination to stay up late catching up with friends. Even the usual pre-PBP shakedown ride – often 50km or more along the course – fell victim to the plan. (My instructions from CO HQ said 10-20 minutes easy riding – that didn’t get me very far.) 

Our selection of an early slot for bike inspection / registration worked well as we avoided the long lines that formed by midday. Again I had the chance to meet and catch up with a lot of other riders, while remaining mindful of Michelle’s admonition to stay off my feet as much as possible. At check-in, we were helped by the legendary Jennifer Wise (RUSA #1) as well as SIR members Renee Lewis and Deena Heg. As with all the volunteers that we would encounter during the ride, they were helpful, encouraging, and cheerful. Did I mention that I love PBP?

Finally the day of ride arrived and I could shift gears from obsessing to riding. In a final attempt to bank sleep, I went to be early the night before, slept 10-11 hours, ate breakfast, took a sleeping pill, and slept for 3-4 more hours. With the ACP’s excellent new start procedure for PBP, there was no reason to get to the velodrome too far in advance of our 4:15PM scheduled start time. Chris sent us a text message a little past 3 saying that lots of folks were massing at the start, so we headed over then, arriving at about 3:30. 

Let's ride.
Bob and I had signed up for the second start wave – the “B” group. We saw some familiar faces in that group and chatted with Grant and David from SIR, Wes from NC, Aaron from SF, Paul from Australia, and others. Bob also spoke with his friend Marko Baloh, a noted ultracyclist and randonneur from Slovenia. He clued us in about an expected ride dynamic – a number of folks who were out to “win” PBP had chosen the second wave with the idea that they would work hard, chase up to the lead group from the first wave, and then finish the ride in that group, but would be 15 minutes ahead. To the extent that we might have had any temptation to try to stay with the front part of our wave, that pretty much finished it off. That kind of pace would be out of our league (or mine at least).

As for Bob and me, our ride plan was a bit vague, but we assumed that to be successful, we’d need to ride with groups of compatible riders as much as we could. Our thought was to stay with a good group of riders from our wave for a long as possible, then pick up with folks from the “C” wave and just surf our way along in that fashion. If all went well, we’d pick up with a handful of agreeable companions to finish PBP in style. 

We headed out to cheers (did I mention that I love PBP?). Great to be riding. Soon we were zipping through the countryside at 30km/hr or so. Although I knew that we were unlikely to sustain that pace, it sure was exhilarating. The first 100 kilometers passed quickly. Then disaster struck. The lead group from the “C” wave approached our bunch. On a mission, they passed our group on the wrong side of a narrow road only to be greeted by an oncoming vehicle rounding a bend at around 101km (before Mortagne-au-Perche). Everyone moved together and Bob was trapped behind two riders that hit their brakes hard.

From my position (about 20 riders in front of Bob), I heard a crash, checked it out in my mirror, and realized it was Bob. Damn. Once the group cleared, I circled back and we began a damage assessment. Bloody hand, sore wrist and neck, non-functional front shifter, and a front wheel that wouldn’t turn. No dent in his desire to finish. We found a position for front brake that allowed him to roll. We called ahead to Chris and Matt at Mortagne-au-Perche and suggested that they get our spare front wheel and some first aid ready to go. Then we got back on bikes and rode like hell.

At Mortagne-au-Perche, Bob got a new front wheel. The shifter was beyond help. Bob would have to ride with just big chainring upfront for 1100km. He didn’t find this too intimidating because he had gears smaller than when he rode PBP on a single speed in 2007. And because he’s a badass. 

I hoped and thought we’d stay together anyway and we did ride together until a little past the control at Villaines-au-Juhel when Bob sent me on. He basically pushed me up to a group of riders, told me to go on with them, and dropped back. Quite a disappointment. It was helpful that we had discussed in advance our plan to make sure that at least one person would be supported by crew to aim for the Charly Miller time. (Of course, it never occurred to me that that person might be me.) It did me a world of good later in the ride to see him on the out-and-back just east of the Roc'h Trevezel. I could see that he was in good shape, in good spirits, and would make it just fine. And indeed, he soldiered on despite aches and pains and finished well in about 70 hours with some of our SIR buddies and others. 

For another 100km or so after Bob sent me on, I was able to stay with groups of riders that were moving along at a good clip and continued to stay ahead of the planned schedule. With the help of Chris and Matt, controls were astonishingly efficient. They’d give me an update on my progress against plan, check on my status, give me something to eat while I got my control card signed, ready my bike and bottles for the next segment, and stuff my pockets with food. In five minutes or so, I was back on my bike and riding.

One unintended consequence of the great support soon became clear. Most of the riders that I’d see around me were faster riders than I. We were only together because they had spent more time at the controls. For a while, I’d try to latch onto some groups of riders, but it would never work. Too much effort. So I rode by myself. (With few exceptions, probably for the last 800 kilometers or more). 

Despite this issue, the support was a wonderful benefit. Never having done an event with a crew before, I was quite astounded to experience how much the support freed me up just to focus on riding the bike and on achieving the goal I had set out for PBP. That focus stayed with me. It didn’t come and go. I guess I wanted it. A lot. On the road, I think I wanted it every minute. I thought about how good I’d feel when I made it. I stayed on plan. I didn’t waste time and energy thinking too far ahead. 

On the bike, I freed my mind up further by ignoring the wealth of data available to me (on my Garmin and elsewhere). Normally, I like to keep myself occupied with things like figuring out my likely arrival time at the next control based on current speed, distance to go, and terrain. Or I’ll look at the upcoming elevation profile to see what was ahead. Instead, I kept the GPS on the map screen, showing only a field for distance to next turn (to keep me honest on navigation) and a field for speed (to keep me from fooling myself about how fast I was going). I’d look at the road ahead and try to optimize my gearing and cadence for steady climbing or for grabbing a bit of extra speed on flats and downhills. I’d notice how good I felt and allow myself to believe that it could continue that way for the rest of the ride. Maybe that’s what Michelle meant by “being in the moment”; I didn’t know, but it felt good. 

Under 24:00 to Brest
Truth was that I was having a blast. The guys who rode on the SIR 2011 Charly Miller team warned me that it wouldn’t be fun during the ride, but it would be fun to have done it. Michelle had warned me that it would be work, not fun, even “very sucky at times." Others had said similar things. To my  delight, that wasn’t my experience. I had fun and kept on having fun. Riding by myself through the French countryside, happy with my efforts, staying on plan, and at one with the bike, I was in heaven.

Throughout Monday, the ride just clicked along – out of Carhaix, up to Roc’h Trevezel, seeing the lead group coming back, out to Brest, back over the Roc again, seeing many friends heading out, coming back into to Carhaix. All good. At Carhaix on the return, I was more than 2 hours ahead of plan and decided to make a stop at Rick and Barb’s gîte. The next stretch was a little challenging. In the dark, with a steady stream of headlights aiming at me, my pace slowed a bit. Situational awareness suffered a bit too. I arrived at the gîte full of plans: I’d like to shower, I said, get some food, change my kit, sleep for an hour or so, and leave by 3AM. “You know that it’s 2AM?” Uh, no, I guess I didn’t. New plan: “I’m going to close my eyes for sixty minutes and hope for some sleep. Wake me up after an hour and get me going.” I probably slept for 45 minutes and felt ready to go. 

Quiet Villaines
After Tinteniac, the sun came up again, the finish was less than 400km away, and I was an hour ahead of plan. The rest of the ride continued to be wonderful. I was riding faster than planned. Although I allowed myself some longer stops - to eat real food at Villaines and Mortagne-au-Perche and some recovery time at Dreux – I built a little bit more margin against the planned pace. I had some nice conversations with other riders – Ed from NJ, the screaming fast tandem of John and Ann, Paul from Ireland, Christiaan from South Africa, among others.

Chris and Matt never tired and kept me moving, even taking on a nice gentle coaching and encouragement role. One fun anecdote - at Dreux, I think Chris decided that I was slacking off (maybe because I took my shoes off). He told me that I should “get on it” for the last leg - even though the Charly Miller time was pretty much in hand, I should get under the time of the SIR CM team from 2011 or even break 55 hours. Whenever I had any urge to take it easy on last stretch, I’d hear him in my ear - “get on it!” - and I’d jump on it again. I attacked the hills in the forest like a lunatic. Not fast by any objective standards, but a wonderful feeling into the finish. I rolled into the final control a bit after 11pm, high as a kite. And a bit incredulous – it was a bit hard to believe. After all the obsession, planning, and riding, I had finished in 54:50. Chris and Matt performed their final support duties – handing me a beer and taking a finish picture.

54:50 - Happy

Final thoughts 

Fortune smiled on this PBP. I was very lucky – in many ways. Lucky to have the opportunity to ride my bike for fun, a luxury not available to the vast majority of people in the world. Lucky to have the support of my family and friends. Lucky to find and benefit from a great coach and wonderful support team. Lucky to have Bob’s inspiration, encouragement, and companionship. Lucky that my bike had exactly zero mechanicals. Lucky that my body held up - no saddle issues of any sort, no real cramping, no tendon issues, no real issues with feet other than a few bouts with hot foot, no problem with hands (a bit battered, but not numb or blistered or anything), no issues with digestion or nutrition. Lucky not to get sleepy (maybe a bit loopy once or twice, but not sleepy). Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Plan vs Reality

10 comments:

Jeff said...

Amazing story. Thanks for sharing.

LapisLee said...

Excellent writing. I felt like I was there.

Rando Rob said...

Congratulations, Mark. After following your posts on the PACTour ET ride this spring then seeing your occasional blurbs on your training (the 'I miss Rando' post was my favorite), it wasn't too surprising that you had a great ride at PBP (not that it was easy, but you stayed focused very well) Your story was fun to read and your result was well deserved. Cheers! Rob Welsh

leigh paterson said...

Great read & epic ride Mark. Heard a rumour that when Peter Donnan & I came to stay with you for Cascades that you starting thinking then that if these 2 old Aussies can finish Cascades I can do CM time at PBP. Good to see you finally stopped stuffing around & got on it. Bravo to you & the Parlee

Iron Rider said...

Great stuff - the ride and the report. Congratulations!

Bill Watts said...

This is a wonderfully well told story. Thank you for it.

mark said...

great story! next goal?

Eric Peterson said...

Mark,
This is the story I hoped you would write. Excellent in all respects!

Unknown said...

Hey Mark, great story, thanks for sharing.

RipVan Rando said...

Mark,

Very enjoyable read of your ride. I think you were the only Rando that I briefly rode with after the first pass of Loudeac and I enjoyed our chat although my "trip" thru the forest should be copyrighted. Your Parlee touring frame is beautiful and it would have been my choice for a comfy, go fast Grand Randonnee.

Your spreadsheet approach was interesting. I tried to look at the ride in that detail but I found myself making too many assumptions. I am simple that way. I just figured if I got to Brest in 24 hours, I had a good shot since the ride statistics show only the very fittest require 20% more time on the return compared to the outbound whereas many riders need almost 40% more time. I planned on a bit less than 30% more time for the return. I calculated 23:30 would be my time to get to Brest and I got there in 23:00 finishing ahead of my estimation despite taking way too long at controls to find food. I did not plan having to ride 700 km solo but I bet you did not either. Thus, I also skipped my 90 minute sleep stop planned for Tintineac. It really was a great ride. No problems. Pure fun. In 2019, my 60 year old body is going to have support at each control and it is going all out. I just hope the lions, alligators, pits to the abyss, and marching dinosaurs remain abay. I understand they are let loose after dinner time.