Turkey Trotting

2013 Turkey Trot MapI finished the 2013 event calendar in fine style this weekend, completing Fort Belvoir’s 10k Turkey Trot without injury and with a respectable (if not spectacular) time.  Given my inability to run the Marine Corps Marathon last month due to a pulled hamstring suffered the week prior in the Army Ten Miler, it was nice to compete and even nicer to finish without injury.

Like much of the area, Fort Belvoir has plenty of history.  Established in World War I as Camp Humphries, the area was used to train engineers for the Army.  The base was renamed Fort Belvoir in the 1930s in recognition of the Belvoir Plantation that used to be on the grounds.  The plantation was built by William Fairfax in 1738.  William was the cousin of Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax and Cameron and the namesake of the county in which the fort resides.   By all accounts, Belvoir was a handsome home until it burned to the ground in 1783, never to be rebuilt (note: a shockingly high number of historical buildings in the area end up being destroyed by fire.  I’m not sure what to make of that.)  Eventually, the Engineer School moved to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, but other agencies moved onto the base.  Yours Truly was proud to serve on the fort at the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command from 2002-2010, both as an officer and as a Department of the Army Civilian.

You’ll have to forgive the history lesson.  I can’t help myself.

At the Starting Line

At the Starting Line

There were about 700 runners for this year’s event.  This is 100 more than last year and it surprised race organizers who nevertheless pulled off the event with no problems.  The morning was an overcast 50 degrees which made for pretty good running weather.  I left my gloves and hat in the car and probably could have done without my sweatshirt, but I had already pinned my race bib to it and the shirt said Army on it, so I kept it on to show my support.

The first mile was downhill so I am very happy to report an astounding split time of 7:45 for that distance.  Sadly, running down hill required me to run back up the hill (I routinely experience a similar phenomenon while cycling) so my other split times weren’t quite as impressive.  It was a fun race with plenty of room for the serious and not-so-serious runners.  I enjoyed the part of the course that took me on my old Physical Fitness Test route.  I believe I’ve lost a step over the past few years, but then again I started my two-mile run test fresh and not having already run four miles.

I also was surprised to see a very substantial hill on the way back from the fitness route.  I’ve driven that road many times but never took notice of it.  Funny how your perspective changes when you are running versus driving.

In the end, I finished with a time of 57:57, good enough to put me in the middle of the pack, both overall and for my age division.  More importantly, nothing on me was damaged.  It was a nice, if modest, way to close out the season.  Here’s to an injury-free 2014.

 

Life Off The Bike

My ailments

My ailments

Hello, there.  Long time, no post.

Some of you may be mildly interested in what I’ve been up to.  I have been bombarded by literally several inquiries as to my whereabouts.  Basically, I’ve been busy running and since this is a blog concerned with cycling activities, I did not find anything particularly relevant to share with you, Dear Reader.  Still, I shouldn’t have just departed without explaining myself.  That was rude and for that I apologize unreservedly.

After my succussful foray into triathlon, I became a full-time runner.  I had a little over two months to prepare myself for the Army 10 Miler and the Marine Corps Marathon, which are run on consecutive Sundays in late October.  I was nursing a chronically sore calf muscle, so I rested a week and started with the basics:  a three mile run.

A simple three miler is a humble starting point for a fellow who wants to run 26.2 miles in ten weeks, but I felt that was the best course of action.  If I added one mile a week (with a couple of exceptions where I’d add two miles) I could get up to a run of 15 miles.  That was going to have to be enough training because that’s all the time I had.  It actually was slightly better than what I did last year when I unexpectedly ran the marathon on five days notice. I busily studied running and training strategies and became an adherent of the Galloway Method of running, which encourages regular breaks for walking to prevent the running muscle group from tiring too quickly.  I bought new shoes.  I put away my bike and focused on my goal.

What followed were ten weeks of modest success punctuated by regular setbacks.

Despite being almost obsessively concerned about injury prevention, the injuries still came.  Most of the nasty joint-related pains in my ankles and knees failed to materialize, the result (I believe) of superior shoes designed to prevent the pronation that causes those injuries.  Instead, muscle-related injuries occurred.  Slowly, the pain moved up my leg, either do to overuse or compensation or both.

Things started this Spring in my foot (#1 in the above figure).  Severe nerve pain under my toes hampered most runs and made cycling rides over 40 miles an exercise in extreme pain.  Discarding my new cycling shoes and making changes in other footwear largely solved this problem, but not before a chronic pain emerged in my Achilles Tendon (2).  Rest seemed to cure this problem, only to have my old friend the calf strain (3) return during my triathlon training.  I know how to handle this condition and it didn’t disable me the way it has in year’s past.  This is where I was when I finished the triathlon.

The pain moved up my leg as marathon training became serious – runs of eight or more miles caused significant soreness in my quad muscles (4).  I wasn’t going to let that sort of thing stop me and simply increased the massages, hot baths, and stretching in that area.  But then a particularly nasty pain developed in my hip (6).  I’m still not entirely sure if the pain is in the joint or the hip flexor but it hurt quite a bit.  I began taking glucosamine to help with my joints and I must admit I didn’t notice a large improvement.

I battled on, with runs now at 13 miles.  Then, on an innocent four mile run on a weeknight, it happened:  a torn hamstring.  This occured a mere two weeks before the Army Ten Miler.  It was only a slight tear and I stopped running immediately, but this was a major setback.  My only recourse was to rest it for the last two weeks, show up at the Ten Miler, and see what happened.

The Army Ten Miler

The Army Ten Miler

Things felt pretty good on the morning of the Ten Miler.  I was stretching with no pain and my first two miles were at the encouraging pace of 8:20/mile.  As I passed the Lincoln Memorial and the marker for Mile 2, I felt a twinge in my hamstring.  Not good.  I dialed my pace back to about 9:00/minute a mile and found I could continue without too much pain.  My hamstring was letting me know it was there, but seemed agreeable to the new pace.

After five miles, the slight strand of tissue that was holding my hamstring together gave notice that it was no longer going to participate in this charade and stopped working.  At this point, you can see the air slowly leave my balloon in each mile’s pace:

Mile 6: 10:08

Mile 7: 10:24

Mile 8: 10:37

Mile 9: 11:09

Mile 10: 11:55

I got across the line with the disappointing time of 1:38:26, about thirteen minutes slower than I hoped for.  In addition to my hamstring, my hip was screaming at me for the last two miles.  It was obvious that I wouldn’t be able to run the marathon.  My great training schedule had netted me almost nothing.  I had accomplished more last year with far less focus on my running training.

So that’s what I’ve been up to. I’ve continued to rest in the past two weeks and most of the pain has subsided.  Although I still plan to run some local races (and triathlons), I suspect it will be a very long time – if ever – before I make another attempt at a marathon.

I haven’t been on my bike since September 14th.  Much of the nice Fall weather is gone and the onset of cold weather is only weeks/days away.    I think it’s time to go for a ride.

Things I Think I Think: Triathlons

Color Guard poolside at the start.

Color Guard poolside at the start.

I’ve finally got my official race photos from the Quantico Sprint Triathlon and I’ve had a week to ponder the imponderables of my first-ever triathlon.  I’m certain you’re dying to learn exactly what I discovered so that you too can make a successful transition to a mediocre triathlete like me.  So please enjoy this illustrated version of Things I Think I Think.

Set Up

About another 20 minutes to wait.  Yippee!

About another 20 minutes to wait. Yippee!

I understand this can be a bit daunting if you’re participating in a large event.  You need to rack your bike (and in large events this can be done the night before and a guard is posted to the Transition Area), pick up your timing chip, get body marked, and lay out your cycling and running gear so you can quickly switch from one event to the other.  For me, this was much worrying about nothing.  With 250 racers, everything went very fast, despite the pouring rain.  My biggest challenge was finding a spot out of the rain to stand in for thirty minutes while I waited for the event to start.

Smartest Things I Did:

- Bring a hefty bag to stay warm in

- Put my stuff in a large ziplock bag to keep it dry

Things I Wish I Did:

- Bring some flip-flops to stand around in before the swim, or even use as I moved across the parking lot to my bike after the swim

- Some people put their gear in two “pickle buckets,” one for each event.  It was very easy for them to keep things sorted and dry.  You can also use one of the buckets as a seat when putting on shoes/socks.  Very nifty.

The Swim

I'm not in this shot.

I’m not in this shot.

Since I have never swum (swam?) competitively, this was the event I was most nervous about.  How hard would it be?  What should my swimwear be?  Could I pull it off with a pair of cycling shorts?  Typical triathlon gear has a smaller chamois pad than normal roadie cycling shorts, but I decided to use one of my existing shorts anyway.  I trained by swimming 1/2 mile routes in the local lake.  I found swimming in the pool to be MUCH easier, since you can stay on course by simply looking at the bottom.  But my open water swim times were much slower and therefore my estimate of how long this would take me was way off.  This put me much farther to the rear of the group than I should have been.

Smartest Things I Did:

- I wore cycling shorts.  They worked great with no issues.

- I didn’t bother with swim goggles.  It was only 8:30 in the water and they would have been just one more thing to keep track of that I really didn’t need.

Things I Wish I Did:

- I wish I got a better estimate of my swim time.  I should have gone to a local pool and done the event under similar conditions as the race.

The Bike Ride

Did I mention it was wet out there?

Did I mention it was wet out there?

Having ridden several thousand miles, I am sorry to report there was very little new to me on this nine mile sprint.  I wore my old shoes and my feet are now doing much much better.  I was one of the few cyclists who were cool enough to have clear lenses in my glasses which made riding in the rain much easier.  I pushed this pretty hard, but I am still wondering if I could have gone faster if I was with faster cyclists.  Instead, I contented myself with reeling in the slower racers who were around my (slow) swim estimate.

Smart Things I Did:

- I didn’t buy a fancy race singlet, which many triathletes use in the pool.  I found a sleeveless jersey with wicking material and that was easy enough to put on in the transition area (the reason why triathletes avoid shirts with sleeves is they are harder to put on when wet).

- I took my time in the transition area.  I invested a minute in putting on socks and didn’t rush myself.  With practice, I could shave some time here but for the first time out I think it was wise not to overly stress here.

Things I Wish I Did:

- I probably didn’t need to bring my water bottle on the ride.  A swig in the transition area before and after would have sufficed and it would have removed a few ounces from my bike.

The Run

Heading for the finish

Heading for the finish

Back in the transition area, I again took my time to make sure my stuff was on correctly.  Most importantly was remembering my  race belt, which displayed my bib number for the run.  My ziplock bag was still keeping everything nice and dry, which was a good thing.  I ran competitively for the first time wearing a visor, which was nice.  It kept the rain off my face without adding as much weight when wet as my hat would have (something I learned during the rain at a recent half marathon).  I was wondering just how comfortable my cycling shorts would be to run in after the swim and the bike ride.  They were just fine.

Smart Things I Did:

- I bought a race belt, meaning I didn’t need to attach my bib to my jersey with safety pins.  That would have been annoying on the bike ride and it would have made it slightly more difficult to get the jersey on (as I worried about ripping the bib).

- I took it easy for the first few hundred yards while my calf resigned itself to the task of running.  Had I pressed things, who knows what might have happened.

Things I Wish I Did:

- Honestly, everything worked out very well for me here and I wouldn’t have changed a thing!

So that’s what I learned on my first triathlon.  Probably the biggest thing I learned is not to be so concerned about all the little unknowns with the transition area, events, etc…  It’s just a race and people are there to assist you.  Don’t act like an Olympian on your first time out, take your time and you will have a lot of fun.  Sprint Triathlons (being shorter) are probably the way to go for a first timer.

The winner.  I was about 16 minutes behind this guy in race time, but about 45 minutes behind him in real time.

The winner. I was about 16 minutes behind this guy in race time, but about 45 minutes behind him in real time.

Showing off my finisher's coin

Showing off my finisher’s coin

I’m already looking forward to doing one or two of these in 2014!

My Foray Into The World Of Triathlon

Quantico TriathlonOn Sunday, I swam, cycled, and ran in succession.  I am now officially a Triathlete.  That and 50 cents will buy you a bad cup of coffee.

Here’s how it happened:

The forecast for rain did not disappoint.  I drove to Quantico Marine Corps Base in a pre-dawn deluge.  I unloaded my bike, set up my wares in the Transition Area, got my timing chip (which I attached to my ankle) and got “body marked” (with my bib number on both arms and my age on my calf) all in a pouring ran.  I then took out a Hefty Bag, ripped holes for my head and arms, and waited patiently for the race to start while the rain continued.  It was 65 degrees.  Yippee.

Despite the crummy weather, the mood at the Inaugural Quantico Sprint Triathlon was very upbeat.  The Marines know how to put on a good show and we were treated to loud music with a Marine Corps theme (it’s hard for this old officer not to get a little pumped up when this is playing).  A Color Guard was there and a chaplain gave an invocation.  Naturally, almost no mention was made of the rain.  Marines are cool like that.

We were assigned a bib number based on our estimated swim time.  I found myself in the middle of the pack with 172.  Swimmers would enter the pool at ten seconds intervals, meaning I had another 30 minutes after the official start to enjoy the weather with my new-found friends.  This was the first triathlon for a lot of us so we compared notes on what we should be doing.  Most people around me were worried about the bike portion.  Since I was the only one crazy enough to have logged a lot of cycling hours in the rain I imparted my wisdom, which boiled down to “Don’t worry – you and your bike are waterproof.  Just slow down on turns and hit your brakes early to burn off the water,” and everyone was suitably impressed.

As the bib numbers in the water approached 70, I realized I was way too far back in the line.  The folks in the water seemed to be at my ability.  Sure enough, when I jumped in the water (which was refreshingly warm at 83 degrees) I quickly began passing people.  This is not ideal in a pool swim and there is a little etiquette involved.  You have to tap the person in front of you on the ankle and patiently wait for him to cling to the lane divider or the wall of the pool then you pass.  I did this about six times, meaning I was passing people who entered the water a minute ahead of me.  My estimate for my swim time was eleven minutes.  As it turned out, I finished in 8:30.

I pulled myself out of the pool, suggested to the official that if he wanted to warm up he should jump in the water (which he was thoroughly amused with) then jogged through a nearby parking lot which served as the Transition Area.  I found my bike, put on my helmet, realized I hadn’t put on my jersey yet, took off my helmet, THEN put on my jersey, clear glasses, socks, shoes and finally my helmet.  I grabbed my bike off the rack and made my way gingerly to the mount/dismount point.  There are several ways to get yourself disqualified in a triathlon.  Two of them are handing your bike with your helmet off or unbuckled and getting on/off your bike on the wrong side of the mount/dismount line.  I was careful to follow the rules and went slow so I didn’t trip over myself while running in my shoes.

(Cool triathletes will run in bare feet with their shoes already clipped into their bike.  I took a more conservative approach and simply put my shoes on before I left the transition area)

So now I was cycling.  This is something I am comfortable with and I immediately began passing even MORE people.  What I didn’t realize at that point was my low estimate of my swimming pace put me with a group of athletes who were generally not at my ability level.  I therefore was not passed by a single person in ANY of the three events.  While this did great things for my self-esteem, it probably hurt my overall time because there was no one to really push me.

Around Mile 4, we hit the large hill on Purvis Road.  Many riders had dismounted and were walking their bikes to the top.  Others pushed on gamely.  I zipped by them and then enjoyed the steep descent to Horner Road, being careful to slow enough at the sharp turn on the bottom  so I could keep my wheels on the pavement.  The rest of the course was very flat and I reeled in another five or six riders by the time I pulled into the Transition Area to get ready for the run.

Once again, I needed to be careful with what I was doing.  Most importantly I needed to remember to get my running bib out of my bag of stuff.  This bib is attached to a very thin and elastic belt which goes around the runner’s waist.  The bib isn’t necessary on the bike because the athlete’s number is on the helmet and the bike.  Neither of these items go on the run, so you kinda need to remember your running bib or you’ll be DQ’d.

The rain had lessened to a mere sprinkle at this point, so things were looking up.  The running leg was only three miles long on a very flat course, so I was hopeful I could manage it.  I wondered how I would do without my calf sleeves, which have become something of a security blanket for me while running.  Sure enough, my right calf almost immediately felt a little tight.  I dialed back my pace for a few hundred yards and everything seemed to sort itself out.  I then got back to the business of passing people.  My achievement here wasn’t quite as glorious – I managed to get past about five people over the entire event.  Again, nobody passed me.

26:36 later, I crossed the finish line.  There was music and a PA announcer shouting my name and home town to the crowd.  It was a pretty cool feeling to cross under the balloon arch that the Marine Corps Marathon brings out to all their events.  Like I said, the Marines know how to put on a good show.  I got my finisher’s coin, some watermelon, water, and other goodies and enjoyed the after-party in the finishing area.  Since everyone was soaking wet and it was still sprinkling, most people didn’t stay very long.  I was like most people and beat a retreat to the warmth and dry of my car.

I ended up with a finishing time of 69:03, good enough to earn my 72nd place out of 248 athletes.  I could have shaved a few minutes in my transition areas had I been more practiced (fishing stuff out of a hug zip lock bag slowed me down as well) and I believe that I may have pushed myself harder had I been paired with athletes of my ability – that’s my own fault for being way too conservative on my swim time.  Still, it was a nice first effort.

I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  The race organizers were absolutely perfect in almost every way.  They went to great lengths to make everyone feel comfortable, answered every question, and put on a well organized, friendly, and fun event.  I hope they run this event again in 2014.  I definitely want to add it to my list of events I return to each year.

Its hard for me to believe this is my last cycling event of the season.  Complaining about the cold weather and getting ready for my first event doesn’t seem that long ago.  Time to get ready for the Army Ten Miler and the Marine Corps Marathon this October.  Gulp.

Tour Of The Towns

Tour Of The TownsMost of you know I am an incredibly important and influential person, not just in the cycling world but in other fields of endeavor as well.  Those other pursuits have kept me away from the computer and I am therefore late in telling you the tale of the Inaugural Tour of the Towns century ride.  Please pull up a chair and grab a cold beverage while I catch you up on things.

Since this ride is meant to showcase the various parts of the county, it is probably appropriate that it began in a commuter parking lot.  Prince William County serves as a bedroom community for the Greater Washington, DC, area.  Every morning, a very large portion of its 400,000 inhabitants moves northward on its commute to DC.  Commuter lots collect thousands of vehicles and commuters continue northward on trains and buses.

Showing off my jersey in the commuter lot

Showing off my jersey in the commuter lot

71 people had preregistered for the event, a humble number that will no doubt one day grow into the hundreds.  Decades from now, people will look at antiquated photos (“Remember when photos were two-dimensional?” they’ll say) of this inaugural event and wish they had been there on that exciting first day.  I will be able to say I was there because I actually bought a jersey which commemorated the event.

Ride organizers said there would be no mass start and they weren’t kidding.  I was fiddling with my gear, waiting for some sort of group meeting to start the show, when I noticed that people had begun to trickle away.  I shrugged my shoulders and headed off by myself, heading toward the town of Occoquan.  This would be the first of eight towns we’d be pedaling through during the day.  At 7:45 on a Sunday, the town was very quiet.

IMG_0805

Thanks to some traffic lights (there would be scores of traffic lights on this ride) I was able to catch up to a pack of riders as we made our way eastward and then south along the vaunted Route 1 Corridor.  Riding on Route 1 is not for the timid and I have never made the attempt to go all the way from Occoquan in the north to Quantico in the south.  A nifty trail (previously unknown to me) helped us bypass much of the road, but eventually we were forced onto it in the town of Dumfries.  A sign proudly announced the town as being the oldest in Virginia.  The town has not aged gracefully and let us leave it at that.

People!  Just east of Occoquan (Mile 3)

People! Just east of Occoquan (Mile 3)

A nifty trail/bridge that helps bypass Rte 1

A nifty trail/bridge that helps bypass Rte 1

I bypassed the first rest stop at Mile 11 and continued southward to Quantico Marine Base, where I soon found myself on the same nine mile loop I will ride in two weeks at the Quantico Sprint Triathlon.  We departed the loop briefly to tour the town of Quantico, a small village completely surrounded by the military base except for the side bordering the Potomac River.  The base was quiet and the day sunny and pleasant.  All was well.

Bypassing Rest Stop 1 - the Dumfries Town Hall

Bypassing Rest Stop 1 – the Dumfries Town Hall

Quantico

Quantico

This is about the last time I could honestly say that on this ride.

We left the base and made our way toward Prince William Forest, where we completed a 7.3-mile circuit of Scenic Drive.  If you like lots of woods with no terribly significant things to look at, then I suppose the drive was scenic.  It was certainly hilly.  Having been over this route a few times, I was prepared; others less so.  I reached 39 mph on one descent without really trying.  I heard a couple riders remark they had no idea such hills existed in Prince William County.

Prince William Forest

Prince William Forest

Completing the lap, we headed northward out of the park on a gravel road, which was a little nerve racking.  For 1.5 miles, I waited for the flat that (fortunately) never came and I emerged at the park’s northern edge ready for the rest stop at Mile 39.  The hills took their toll on me and I was very grateful for the peanut butter and jelly sandwhiches which race volunteers cheerfully provided me.  I was only four miles from my house and it was an odd feeling to be so tired so close to home, knowing I was about to depart for another 60+ miles of riding.

The gravel road.  I'm not travelling nearly as fast as this pic suggests

The gravel road. I’m not travelling nearly as fast as this pic suggests

Rest Stop at Mile 39

Rest Stop at Mile 39

I was looking forward to getting on the open stretch of road between this point and Haymarket, about 33 miles away.  I’d been a little frustrated at my slow pace caused by traffic lights, guard checks on the base, and the hills in the forest.  These hopes were dashed the moment I left the rest stop and was hit by a stiff 20 mph breeze.  For the next two and a half hours, I pushed my bike along very familiar roads in the county’s “Rural Crescent,” a boundary of sorts set up to protect against suburban sprawl.  The views were pleasant.  The wind was not.  You could not have picked a more damaging direction for the wind – it was pretty much always in my face.  The temperature was climbing into the 90s.  Life was hard.

The Rural Crescent (wind not pictured)

The Rural Crescent (wind not pictured)

I stopped for a breather in Nokesville (Mile 61) and was very grateful for another nicely appointed stop and the friendly conversation from the volunteer who manned it.  The final twelve miles into Haymarket were spent in increasingly heavy traffic.  The cue sheets requested I make use of sidewalks and mixed use paths, which I tried to do.

Here’s the thing about sidewalks and mixed use paths:  they pretty much are awful to ride on, especially when one is trying to log 100+ miles.  They are jarring, with many cracks and the necessary ramps (plus gutters) at every side street.  Your pace is slowed considerably and your body suffers from increased fatigue as it fights over every extra bump.  Eventually, I gave up and simply headed onto the streets and the busy traffic all around me.

A quarry on the outskirts of Gainesville

A quarry on the outskirts of Gainesville

After what seemed like an eternity, I reached the Haymarket rest stop (Mile 72), a bike shop on the main street of the town.  I enjoyed the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains while sitting on a bench and eating another PB&J and a bannana.  I was very much looking forward to having the breeze at my back for once.  After a few minutes I left, hoping the wind would help.

The Madone at rest at the Haymarket rest stop

The Madone at rest at the Haymarket rest stop

It was wonderful.

I was traveling 25 mph down roads I had just struggled on, barely moving at 13 mph.  Traffic remained intense as I headed toward downtown Manassas and the final rest stop at Mile 83.  It was a short ride, but I was glad I stopped.  I would need some of the fluids I took on board for the motorcyclist I would encounter in 15 miles.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It was quite hot as I left Manassas and pedaled through some of its hilly suburbs.  I faced a brief dillema on Manssas Drive when I learned it was closed for repaving.  Not knowing a way around, I opted for a combination of sidewalks and blatent violation of the road closed sign to keep me on course.  With 90 miles in my legs, I wasn’t interested in a detour.  In short order, I found myself on the Prince William Parkway.  This offered me a choice of riding on the shoulder of a very busy road (55 mph speed limit) or riding on one of the worst mixed use paths in the county.  I chose the road.

Eight miles later, two motorcyclists flew past me.  About three hundred yards after passing me, a vehicle unexpectedly moved into their lane, cutting one motorcyclist off.  He laid his bike down and the result wasn’t pretty.  I didn’t see the accident but was one of the first people on the scene.  I stayed with the injured motorcyclist while his buddy called for an ambulance.  He gladly took all the water I had left in my bottles.  Soon the ambulance showed up and I excused myself to finish my chore.

And make no mistake, this was now a chore.  I was riding on an incredibly busy street with horrible to nonexistence paths/sidewalks on a hot day with no fluids.  I soft pedalled my way back to the commuter lot and finished the 104 mile route in eight hours and 45 minutes.

I’ve now done four centuries (not to be confused with the longer randonneuring brevets, of which I have also completed four) and this was the hilliest.  The 4,327 feet of climbing is slightly more than the Reston Century, which makes a point of telling people it is somewhat challenging.  When the climbing is combined with the heavy traffic, traffic lights, and the difficult stretches of sidewalks/paths, I believe this is the most challenging of the four centuries I have completed.

Many thanks to the ride organizers and volunteers, all of whom were extremely positive and eager to help.  There were more rest stops than I am accustomed to seeing and they were amply supplied to boot.  This is quite possibly the first-ever organized century conducted in the county in which I live and I was glad to be a part of it.

USAF Crystal Ride, Part 2: The Ride

Crystal Ride2The Crystal Ride is one of my favorite events of the year.  With about 1,800 riders, it is the largest cycling event I attend.  Despite my Army roots, the USAF military theme is nice and there is a healthy smattering of military-themed jerseys in the peloton.  The route is on closed streets that are normally quite busy and it is fun to ride on them.  Unlike most cycling events I participate in, this one actually has spectators which cheer you on.  It is the only event I ride where simply finishing is not the only goal – the finishing time becomes important and determines which sort of medal you receive.

But perhaps my favorite part of this event is the chaos.

Putting 1,800 riders of greatly varying abilities on a closed course with sometimes narrow roads of questionable quality is a recipe for the kind of excitement normally found in demolition derbies or Roman chariot races, at least the one depicted in the movie, Ben Hur.  The 9+ mile course means the faster riders never truly distance themselves from the slower cyclists, they merely lap them and are always mixed amongst them.  You have to be ready for just about anything, but just about anything usually happens.

Having reached the starting group with two minutes to spare, I was well to the rear of the leaders at the start.  I was so far back that I couldn’t hear any of the opening ceremonies or even the official start of the race.  I knew the ride had started by the cheering which slowly moved from the start line to my position in the back.  We slowly built up speed from our standing start, moving from walking speed to a leisurely 12 mph as we moved up Crystal Drive toward Route 110, where I knew the herd would begin to thin on the two mile straightaway.

At Mile 0.6, I saw my first injury.

He was lying on the road with three cyclists standing over him, trying to help until a ride marshal could arrive.  He was clutching his right shoulder and was in considerable pain.  It appeared to me to be either a broken collar-bone or a dislocated shoulder.  I don’t know what caused the accident, but its a good bet he simply collided with another cyclist in the jumbled mass that still existed at this point.  Since he was being tended to, I pressed onward, found a nice paceline and zipped northward toward the city of Rosslyn.

Having reached Rosslyn, we did a sharp U-Turn (one of several on the course that had the effect of breaking up any impromptu paceline that may have developed on the straightaways) and headed back toward the Pentagon and the USAF Monument, which sits on a hill and is the main terrain feature of the course.  I was pleased that I stayed WELL away from my bottom gear on my first ascent and looked forward to bombing back down the hill.

The hill leading to the USAF Monument

The hill leading to the USAF Monument

It was during this first descent where I had my brush with disaster.

I was having a happy descent (almost all my descents are happy ones.  It’s the one moment where my excess mass plays to my advantage) when the fellow in front of me unexpectedly hit a water bottle that fell out of another cyclist’s cage.  We were moving at 30 mph, so this was a significant moment for all concerned.  In microseconds, I saw the man’s rear wheel hit the bottle, saw the bottle explode into a mist of orange Gatorade, watched his rear wheel move into the air while his front maintained contact with the asphalt, then noticed his bike begin to rotate slightly to one side.

I was about fifty feet behind this guy, moving at a very fast pace.  When that rear wheel hit the asphalt again, he would be slightly crooked.  There was a good chance he would crash.  I could either attempt to move quickly off my line and almost certainly hit another rider (and thus crash) or take my chances with the fellow in front of me.  I chose the latter.  Since I am typing these words, you know things worked out ok for me.

Remarkably, the cyclist was able to keep his bike under control.  I moved slightly to one side and passed within two or three feet of him, realizing I had chosen wisely.  That was some very good bike handling on his part.  I don’t think I would have remained upright.  Had he crashed, I would have hit him and launched myself into the air at 30 mph.  I’m glad I didn’t get to have that experience.

The rest of the ride was far less eventful.  I maintained a nice pace and was going to finish a little faster or even with last year’s ride, which I was pleased to see given my lack of miles, jet lag, and the morning adventure with my derailleur.  As the laps went by, the group thinned out considerably.  The course was dotted with cyclists repairing flats or broken chains.  I pedaled past two more serious crashes which required ambulances, though both cyclists were alert and seemed to be doing well, all things considered.

Crystal City

Crystal City

On top of the hill near the USAF Monument.  I'm normally not this grumpy.

On top of the hill near the USAF Monument. I’m normally not this grumpy.

The ride settled into a routine.  Each lap would begin amongst the tall buildings of Crystal City and the PA announcer at the Start/Finish line giving a running commentary for the spectators which was difficult to hear as I pedaled past.  In short order, I would be on the straight road of Route 110, where I would attempt to find somebody’s wheel to suck.  After returning back on Route 110 and passing the Pentagon on its west side, it was time to focus on climbing the USAF Monument hill and enjoy a short flat section at the top where a DJ was regaling a small crowd with techno music.  After bombing down the hill (and avoiding any water bottles that may be there) the route returned to the potholed streets of Crystal City and a large crowd cheering cyclists on.  I did this 9+ mile course six times – enough for a gold medal.

There is one more incident to report, this one a mere half mile from the finish in Crystal City.  A woman didn’t see one of the many potholes in this section of the course and buried her front wheel in it.  She fell to the side, landing on her shoulder blade.  I stopped next to her and made sure she was ok.  She was looking herself over and was amazed to see no cuts.  Unfortunately, she couldn’t see the massive road rash on her shoulder blade (she was wearing a sleeveless jersey) which I could see.  Rather than draw too much attention to that, I focused instead on checking her bike and determined it was fine.  I mentioned to her that she would be feeling her shoulder in the morning and asked if she wanted medical attention.  She said she wanted to try to finish so I watched as she got on her bike and made sure she could pedal.  Then I went on my way to the finish, where I actually had enough energy left to do a proper sprint.  I’m not sure if Mark Cavendish (a world-class sprinter, for those who don’t follow the sport) would classify it as a “sprint,” but I was riding much faster than normal for me and using all my energy to do so, so I was pleased with the effort.

A classic look

A classic look

I ended up finishing two minutes slower than last year, which I thought was just fine.  I picked up my gold medal and was wandering over to the Shimano tent when I noticed a cyclist on the reviewing stand being interviewed by the announcer.  He was riding a steel-framed peugeot bicycle which he bought forty years ago and was decked out from head to toe in classic cycling garb, including an old-fashioned helmet, shoes, and a spare tube which he carried drapped over his shoulder.  Very neat.

As I approached the Shimano tent, I heard a voice shout, “Steve!  Steve!”  That being my name, I turned and met regular reader, Nene, who had just finished the ride himself.  It was really cool to be recognized by a reader in the middle of a crowd and we had a nice chat together.

Less grumpy at the finish

Less grumpy at the finish

After visiting with Nene, I reached the Shimano tent and once again thanked the mechanic who saved my day.  I then made my way back to my car and loaded up my bike for the ride home.  Thus concluded my third running of the USAF Crystal Ride.  It wasn’t my best time, but it certainly was an adventure before, during, and after the event.  2013’s ride ranks as my favorite of the three and I’m already looking forward to 2014!

USAF Crystal Ride, Part 1: Getting There Is Half The Fun

I returned from Madrid on Friday.  Sunday was the USAF Crystal Ride – never a dull moment!  I got off the plane in Dulles Airport, drove across town in a driving rain storm in rush hour and arrived at the Crystal City Marriott 30 minutes before the Packet Pickup Desk closed for the day.  This was a blessing as it meant I didn’t need to drive back to the city on Saturday to get my packet.

On Saturday, I puttered around the house, doing errands that built up over a week away from home.  After dinner, I began to make preparations for the ride.  I fastened my bibs to my jersey, put my number on my helmet, gathered all my stuff and put it in the car so my getaway on Sunday morning would be simple and quick.

Then I turned my attention to my rear derailleur, which had been acting up ever so slightly during my last ride before heading to Spain.  I had lost the ability to reach my top two gears and I wanted to make the slight adjustment necessary to fix the problem.

I had never adjusted my derailleur before but I wasn’t about to let a complete lack of knowledge or experience stop me.  I dutifully watched three (three!) Youtube videos on the subject and read two pages of a bicycle repair manual I bought a few years ago.  It seemed straightforward enough…

Two hours later, I had ruined my derailleur.

Somehow, I had managed to adjust the screws and cables to the point where the only gear I had was my top gear.  No amount of fiddling, lubing, cursing, begging, or praying would change the situation.  I was now 13 hours from the start of the ride with only my top gear.  All the local bike shops closed for the day.  Life was hard.

So I loaded both my damaged Trek and my clunky hybrid, Old Ironsides, onto my bike rack.  If I couldn’t get the Trek fixed I would be forced to push my hybrid around that course and would most likely settle for a silver medal – averaging the required 17.1 mph on Old Ironsides over 56 miles is a feat beyond my capability.  Still, a silver medal amongst my growing collection of gold USAF medals would be an interesting story to tell over the years…

I showed up at the Crystal Ride an hour early the next morning and found the maintenance tent near the start line.  I was encouraged to see the guys were actually present and were from Shimano.  My derailleur is a Shimano 105, so I thought perhaps I had a chance to get it fixed.

My saviors.  Pic taken after the ride when they were properly set up.

My saviors. Pic taken after the ride when they were properly set up.

The team hadn’t even begun setting up shop but the head of the group offered to take a look at my bike.  I learned that this kind soul was actually the head bicycle mechanic for Shimano and had traveled to the event from the company’s corporate headquarters in Southern California.  Very cool.  After teasing me about needing a gear other than my top gear, he proceeded to fix my derailleur while simultaneously giving me a course on derailleur systems and bicycle repair in general.

It turns out that the cable was frayed and no amount of adjusting was going to fix the problem.  “You were fighting an uphill battle,” the mechanic said.  When I told him of my several minutes of detailed internet research, he chuckled and said, “I laugh at Youtube videos.”  I was pleased to learn I was fiddling with the right stuff on the bike, so I was at least coming close to understanding/fixing the problem.  The mechanic said that learning the right steps was the easy part – gaining the experience so that you can understand what you are seeing/feeling while doing the steps was much harder.

The mechanic wasn’t surprised to see the cable was frayed.  My shifter is SRAM and they subcontract their cables to a company called Jaguar.  This company makes cables that are 1/10th of a millimeter too large for the Shimano specs.  That’s right – it was 0.1 millimeters too big.  That may not sound like much, but over time that size difference wears on the tubing and the cable tends to fray earlier than it should.  I suggested Shimano and SRAM have a meeting to sort this out and the mechanic took it under advisement.

In less than 30 minutes, I had a brand new shift cable and a fully tuned rear derailleur, along with an impromptu class provided by Shimano’s head mechanic.  Excellent!  I raced back to my car, put the bottles, GPS, etc… on the bike (after all, I wasn’t sure what bike I would be riding when I pulled in), took off my sneakers (needed for the hybrid) and put on my road shoes and zipped over to the starting group with two minutes to spare.

Needless to say, I was at the back of the pack.  I would be winding my way through 1,400 riders in my attempt to get near the front.  Who am I kidding – getting near the front was never my goal; simply getting a gold medal while jet lagged and frazzled over my derailleur crisis would be good enough today.  To learn how that went, stay tuned for Part 2!

The back of the peloton.  The white banner waaay in the distance is the start/finish line.

The back of the peloton. The white banner waaay in the distance is the start/finish line.