Marine Corps Half Marathon

halfmarathonroute

I was running again.  This time I participated in the Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon, held in “historic” Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Truth be told, there isn’t very much about Fredericksburg that is historic, except that on one December day in 1862 several tens of thousands of Union soldiers proved that assaulting prepared defensive works on high ground is extremely unwise.

Despite all of that, the Marines always put on a good event and Sunday was no exception.  About 7,000 runners gathered at a convention center on the outskirts of town on a drizzly but warm morning.  There were an additional 3,000 runners participating in 5K and 10K races that were being run simultaneously.  There was plenty of excitement at the start, what with a Marine band, color guard, town crier, one of the Washington Nationals’ famous Racing Presidents – George Washington, and actor Sean Aniston.

I can now say I’ve run a race with a hobbit.  Incidentally, the hobbit beat me by about two minutes.

There was much pre-race drama for me on a personal level.  Heavier than expected traffic pushed our arrival back to almost the very last-minute.  This made things exciting for a co-worker, who was waiting patiently for me to arrive with the race bib I picked up for him the day prior.  I managed to arrive shortly after the invocation and just as the national anthem was beginning.  My buddy had about five minutes to spare.  I then set about turning on my GPS and grew increasingly frustrated at its refusal to synch with the satellites.  After varying amounts of cursing and pleas to an unseen GPS God, the necessary signals were acquired literally as the firing of a cannon signified the start of the race.

I then began to execute my rather unconventional race strategy.

The big (literal and figurative) feature of the race is a large, mile-long hill known as Hospital Hill.  It is very appropriate that there is a hospital on the top of this hill – there are plenty of potential patients struggling up it.  Most people budget some energy so they can take on this hill.  Not me.  I decided my only hope of reaching my ambitious goal of two hours was to run as fast as I could on the downhill portions early in the course, build up a reserve of minutes which I would then cash in when it came time to climb.

So off I went at a sub-8:00 min/mile pace, shockingly fast for me.  I even left The Diesel in my wake.  After three miles of downhill running, I had two minutes “in the bank” and was feeling good.

After four miles, I was beginning to tire.  I amused myself while running on Sunken Road by thinking of the thousands of Confederates who once used it as a bulwark against the Federal assault.  This did not amuse me for long.

After five miles, I was definitely tired.  I tried to eat some energy jelly beans I had stowed in my shorts pocket.  This was a mistake and I quickly learned my stomach has a MUCH different reaction to eating while running than while cycling.  This added to my distress.

At Mile 6, The Diesel reeled me in.  We were in downtown Fredericksburg in a quaint shopping district.  She asked me if I was injured and I said no.  Then I said goodbye.  Then she was gone.  She was nursing a strained hamstring but still had a shot at breaking the 2 hour barrier.

By Mile 9, I had used up all the time I had put in my bank and was now running at an even 9:00/mile pace.  Hospital Hill was still a mile away and I knew there was no hope for me to meet my race goal.  I trudged along the Rappahannock River, enjoyed the view the best that I could, and braced myself for the hill.

Hospital Hill was precisely as advertised.    After making the long climb at a 12:00 minute pace, I found the remaining two miles to be a drizzly test of will.  I eventually found my way to the finish line at 2:14.  Once there, a Marine Lieutenant presented me with my Finisher’s Medal and I made full use of the free water, fruit, pretzels, some tasty banana desert that was served cold, and a cup of beer.  The beer was especially nice.

My “middle of the pack” finish for my age group was a little deflating and The Diesel came three minutes short of breaking the 2 hour barrier, her leg injury keeping her short of her goal.  Still, she finished in the Top 20% of her age division – a fact that seemed to impress me much more than it did her.

Exciting action photo at the finish.

Exciting action photo at the finish.

I continue to be impressed with the spectacle of running events.  This “small” event of 10,000 runners dwarfs anything I’ve seen around here in the cycling world.  Huge sponsorships, mascots, famous actors, great staffing, music at the start/finish and along the course – you name it and it is first class.  There’s a lot of fun to be had being part of such an event and it’s also quite nice to complete a significant challenge in a little over two hours.  It frees up plenty of time for other worthwhile weekend activities, like napping.

Still, I looked with dismay at my monthly riding totals and see I have actually run more miles than I have ridden.  Rest assured, I’ll be fixing that this week.

DC Randonneurs Civil War Tour 200K Brevet (Part 2)

So there I was, zipping through the streets of Fairfield, Pennsylvania, hoping my depleted energy reserves after 69 miles of climbing would be sufficient to help me outrun an approaching thunderstorm.

I’ve outrun storms before.  It’s kind of a cool notion, that you can actually outpace a force of nature while riding a bicycle.  However, this storm seemed to have me in its sights.  The skies darkened and the wind picked up.  As I passed a local fire department, I noted the siren was wailing.  This was troublesome as sirens are often used as a tornado warning.  Even more perplexing was this same fire department was being used as a rest stop for the Civil War Century riders and there were many cyclists leaving the parking lot and continuing their ride.  A fire department that was sounding its siren as a tornado warning surely would not let cyclists leave its parking lot, would they?

Would they?

I certainly hoped they would not and that the siren was for some other inexplicable reason.  Maybe they were cheering on the cyclists.  In any event, I pressed on and quickly left the town for the countryside.

The wind picked up.  I’d guess that gusts were over 40 mph and would occasionally push my bike to the side.  One gust caused some acorns to fly off a nearby tree and pelt me.  That hurt.  After about three miles, the heavens opened and a thunderstorm of epic proportions ensued.  Once again, I was trapped in a large storm while on a ride.  I attempted to use my iPhone to find a weather radar which would tell me how serious a situation this was.  I learned that the touch screen on an iPhone doesn’t work well when torrents of water are flowing onto it.  I put it away in a ziplock bag and pressed on.

It got worse.  Thunder crashed around me and the mid-day sky looked like dusk.  It started to rain sideways.  Winds were steadily over 30 mph and gusts had to be around 50 mph.  This was not good, about as bad as I have ever experienced on a bicycle.  I could only see a few hundred feet in front of me and was looking for shelter more substantial than an oak tree.  After about half a mile of this, I came across a gentleman who was closing up his barn.  The building had a porch and I shouted a question to him over the wind, “Could I please use your barn for shelter?”  He graciously gave me permission and I am in his debt.

So now I had shelter and there was a fairly good chance I was not going to die.  Things were looking up.  Still, I was completely soaked and my fatigue from six hours of mountain cycling had not abated.  I plopped myself down on a plastic chair and enjoyed the view.  Amazingly, I saw five people who cycled past in this deluge.  I never saw their bodies or ruined bicycles, so I presume they made it out of there.  I know this:  they were crazy.

The view from the barn

As I sat there, waiting for the storm to abate and wondering what sort of fool rides through a potential tornado, a funny thing happened:  I started to feel better.  After twenty minutes, the storm had subsided, the skies cleared, and I felt remarkably fresh.  For the first time in about two hours, I believed I might finish this ride in decent shape.  In some odd way, the break enforced by the storm may have been just what I needed to recharge my batteries.  I headed out into a light sprinkle and saw two different groups of cyclists emerging from nearby garages.  It looks like the good people of McGlaughlin Road helped several of us cyclists on this day.

The ride into Gettysburg Battlefield was mostly downhill and in a slight sprinkle.  For me, this would be the highlight of the ride.  I’ve been to Gettysburg many times over the years.  There are many fantastic stories associated with this battle, way too many to share in this space, and the park-like setting is always very inviting for a visitor.  I’ve never been to the battlefield on a bicycle.  When I spied Big Round Top and Little Round Top from about three miles away, I picked up my pace like a horse who smells the barn.

Fought over three days the summer after Antietam, Gettysburg is often described as the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy.  With Robert E. Lee’s defeat, the South lost their best chance to win the war.  Approximately 50,000 casualties were suffered during three days of combat.  I entered the park from the west and traveled past The Wheatfield, which saw 30% casualties among the 20,000 soldiers who fought there on the battle’s second day.  Some of the wounded managed to crawl to nearby Plum Run and soldiers downstream reported the stream ran red with their blood.  Recalling these stories, I suddenly didn’t feel so bad about my personal condition.

I made my way northward along the Federal lines, passing by monuments I knew very well - regimental markers placed where a particular unit fought, Father William Corby – who blessed the Iron Brigade before it launched its attack in the Wheatfield, and several state monuments including a nice one from my home state of New York.  Of course, the Pennsylvania Monument is the largest and it dominates the Union Center.  Despite the recent storm, there were still a few people sightseeing, though far fewer than one would expect on a typical Saturday.

The Pennsylvania Monument

Just past the Pennsylvania Monument is one of the battlefield’s key points – The Copse of Trees.  This small grouping of trees is what 15,000 Confederates marched toward during the doomed Pickett’s Charge on the battle’s third day.  The attackers suffered 50% casualties, a rate that is almost unimaginable to this career army officer.  The original trees still stand today and are part of a nice display.  Imagine my surprise when I saw what the storm had done.

The Copse of Trees

The large tree limb missed a period artillery piece by inches and the marble statue by a few feet.  The only thing that appeared to be damaged (apart from the tree) was the iron fence which surrounds the trees.  I spoke with the gentleman pictured above and learned he had spent the storm in his car on Little Round Top, about a mile away.  We both grabbed some acorns which were all over the place as a result of the storm.  With a little luck, one of them will sprout and I will have a descendent of these trees growing in my yard.

Rodney at Little Round Top

One can sight-see for only so long on these rides.  While not overly demanding, there is a time limit to arrive at the various controls.  I therefore broke off from monument chasing, pedaled out of the park and headed north into the town of Gettysburg, where I eventually pulled into the next control point – a 7-11 store.  I must have made quite an impression to the people inside, who gathered around me and asked where, exactly, I was during the storm.  I told my story with as much embellishment as I could reasonably get away with and impressed everyone with my report about the downed tree limb at The Copse of Trees.  Outside the store, I met up with another Randonneur named Rodney.  We would end up cycling the remaining 50 miles together.

Rodney is an experienced randonneur raised in Wisconsin and recently moved to Virginia from Illinois.  He has been on brevets and lengthy tours in those states and many others but this was his first event with the DC Randonneurs and his first brevet in some time.  He rode a nifty steel bike custom-made by Seven Cycles out of Massachusetts.  I’d never heard of the company and he happily told me a bit about them.  Apparently, they are big into Titanium and lightweight steel and they custom build almost all their bikes.  Neat.

The rain did not stop the reenactors from impressing sightseers hardy enough to start outside

We rode westward through town and made our way to the Confederate lines, where we discovered the road closed due to more downed trees.  The presence of trees on a road didn’t deter some drivers, who attempted to bypass them and became stuck in the mud.  The presence of Rodney didn’t deter the driver of an RV, who almost ran him over as he gunned his engine to get out of the mud.  We quickly got through the mess and pressed on past the large statue of Robert E. Lee and the Virginia Monument and onward past a statue of James Longstreet, Devil’s Den, and up onto Little Round Top.  Rodney was the first person I cycled with at any of the historical sites and I am afraid he had no choice but to hear my ramblings about the events that transpired at each location.  He was very polite and pretended to be interested.  After a few miles, we exited the battlefield on its Eastern side.

I looked at my Garmin.  40 miles to go.

The rain had stopped by this point but the skies were threatening to the west.  Another band of rain was moving our way.  We made a good pace as the ride was mostly downhill and we repeatedly thanked our good fortune that the winds had subsided with the passing of the cold front.  We were pushing against a modest breeze and not the strong gusts of a few hours ago.  We made decent time but I could feel myself beginning to drain once again.  The excitement of being at Gettysburg had faded and all that remained was the long slog back to Frederick.

At my request, we stopped for a rest in the town of Detour (Mile 108) at a small village store called, sensibly enough, The Village Store.  There, we chatted with an elderly man who was fascinated with our bikes and stated he used to enjoy riding a bit in his youth.  Rodney tried to convince the man that if you are well enough to walk, you are well enough to cycle.  Perhaps he made a convert.  Despite the pleasant conversation and the intake of food/drink, this stop did not have the recuperative effect that the stop during the storm or the one in Gettysburg had.  I believe I had simply reached the end of my endurance and the remaining 26 miles would be a gut check.

I was right.

Toward the end, my camera was performing about as well as I was cycling

The gradual downhill ended and a series of rollers ensued.  Roller after roller and roller.  Normally, these are kinda fun to ride:  you zip down one hill and dance up the next using the momentum created from the descent.  In my current condition, I usually handled them by coasting or pushing slightly and then slamming my into my bottom gear, whereupon I battled to reach the top.  I had been fighting cramps off and on for the past four hours.  Every hill brought on a cramp.  It started to rain again.  Life was hard.

Along the way, Rodney lost his cue sheet while attempting to change it on the fly.  This meant he had no choice but to stick with me, which was a pleasant situation for me, at least.  I was responsible for reading and remembering the directions to the next turning, but my memory skills were fading fast.  I could remember the name of the road we were looking for but would usually forget which way we needed to turn.  We would stop at the intersection where I would once again consult the cue sheet, then point out the right way, announce the next street we would turn at, then forget the direction.  This went on for about ten miles.

Finally, we made it to the day’s final challenge:  Ball Road.  Only three miles from the finish, this road features a climb of 200 feet over about 3/4 of a mile.  If you’ve been paying attention, you will know that this is not a significant climb compared to all the others I’d been over this day.  We took a break at the bottom while Rodney got his reflective gear and lights turned on (it was getting dark).  Then we set off.

I’ve been cycling regularly since 2010.  I’ve logged over 7,000 miles.  I have never gotten off my bike for any challenge.  Ever.  But halfway up that hill, with cramps in both legs, I tasted bile in my mouth and gave up.  I walked my bike up about a hundred yards then remounted near the summit.  It was not my greatest moment, but I do believe had I continued I may well have passed out or at the very least vomited while riding my bike.  I didn’t want to do either of those things, so I guess I made a good decision.

The final mile and a half was an easy ride up Urbana Road to the Pizza Hut.  Rodney and I checked in with an official time of twelve hours and three minutes.  That’s well before the maximum time of 13.5 hours but much slower than my previous 200k time of 9:40 on a much flatter course.  I was hoping to finish within 12 hours, so I pretty much hit my mark.  We then sat down inside the restaurant, enjoying some pizza and soda and chatting with other finishers about the ride while trying to not let on that my legs and feet were cramping on and off.  The main topic of conversation was “Where were you when the storm hit?”  The group clapped in congratulations as we arrived and we did likewise for cyclists who finished after us.  It is a nice tradition that separates the DC Randonneurs from other “non-club” organized rides I have been on.  After a few minutes of conversation, I packed up the car and headed home.  It was time to sleep.

Thus concluded the 200k Civil War Brevet.  My Garmin informs me I rode 134. 4 miles, climbed 8,763 feet and burned 5,201 calories: all personal bests.  My top speed was 44.6 mph – my second fastest time on a bike.  Except for the Marine Corps Marathon (which I ran in 1993), this was the hardest physical thing I have ever accomplished.

I’m looking forward to the next challenge.

DC Randonneurs Civil War Tour 200K Brevet (Part 1)

As always, click for details

And so it came to pass that I found myself in Frederick, MD, with 33 serious cyclists for the DC Randonneurs’ 200 km brevet (pronounced Bra-Vaye, for those who haven’t bothered to learn French).  How serious were these cyclists?  As I have discussed elsewhere, a 200 km ride is one of the shortest distances these people cover.  Many ride far longer distances and for a nice report of what a serious randonneur endures, I commend to you this post.  As for myself, I considered the upcoming ride to be my toughest attempt to date.  I had ridden 200k with the Randonneurs last March, but this ride would feature twice as much climbing with strong winds and possible thunderstorms in the forecast.  My goal was a simple one – finish.

A few hundred yards into things – at this point, all was well

After signing in at a local Pizza Hut and receiving a short briefing, we were off toward the first of four battlefields of the day – Monocacy.  It was here in 1862 where Union forces famously found a copy of Robert E. Lee’s Special Order 191, detailing his plan to invade the North.  Using this information, Union General George McClellan exclaimed, “Now I know what to do! Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.”

McClellan intended to march westward toward Sharpsburg, MD,where he expected to meet Lee’s army as it crossed the Potomac River.  Although Sharpsburg is only 30 miles away from Frederick, there are two rather significant terrain features between the two towns – Catoctin and South Mountains.  Our route would take us along one of the roads used by Union forces, who fought their way uphill against a delaying force of Confederates.  In 1862, the men fought in wool uniforms on dirt roads.  I had a bicycle, asphalt roads, and all the liquid and food I could ask for.  And nobody was shooting at me.

Piece of cake.

We pedaled at the rather sedate pace of 17 mph, much slower than the club did in my March ride.  I suspect the more experienced riders at the front were conserving their energy for the climbing to come.  I know I was.  My strategy was not to impress anyone on the climbs.  That was not possible to begin with and to expend energy I would need later while simply trying to make a good showing would be foolhardy, in my view.  I just wanted to survive with as much energy as possible.  The worst of the climbing would be over by Mile 67 and I could then enjoy the rest of my day in relative peace.

A blurry photo at the beginning of Mar-Lu Ridge

At Mile 12, we hit Mar-Lu Ridge and the “sedateness” ceased.  The steepest climb of the day was mercifully the first one.  It was only a little more than a mile, but we climbed 450 feet.  The little pack of riders split up as we struggled to reach the summit.  For the first time that day, I put my bike in its bottom gear and grinded my way to the top.  I would get to know my bottom gear very well before the day was through.  This was also the place where I maxed out my heart rate at 180 bpm – 100% of my capacity, or so the people at Garmin would have me believe.  I think they’re about right.

After gently rising for the next eight miles, I came across our second major climb of the day: Gapland Road.  This was a “mere” 310 feet over two miles from the slumbering town of Burkittsville to Gathland State Park.  I traveled this portion of the ride alone, with most of the group ahead of me and out of sight and a handful trailing behind me, again out of sight.  I was alone in my thoughts, which tended to center on just when would this &^#$%!  climb be over.    At the top of the climb, I found the monument to war correspondents killed in war which Folksnake often mentions.  The site also served as a rest break for the Civil War Century which was being run out of nearby Thurmont.  There were a handful of strong riders there, being part of forefront of a group of 1,000 (or so) riders I would encounter over the day.  There were lots of bugs in the air and I really didn’t enjoy being around food I wasn’t permitted to eat, so I beat a hasty retreat and began the descent into Sharpsburg.

The Madone pausing by the War Correspondents Arch

On my way down, I contemplated my Garmin, which informed me I had climbed 2,000 feet in 20 miles.  I have never climbed more than 5,000 feet in a single ride and I had almost done half that in a mere 20 miles.  No wonder why I was feeling a bit knackered.  As I came down the mountain, the sky cleared and a beautiful morning developed before me.  I eventually came upon Nick, who I knew as the organizer of the March brevet.  We exchanged pleasantries and were quickly joined by Mike.  Both Nick and Mike are experienced riders who knew the area well.  It was nice to have some company and to learn what to expect up ahead.  We pedaled into Sharpsburg, just on the edge of the Antietam battlefield, and made a mandatory stop to get our control cards signed by a cashier at a convenience store.  I also grabbed some more sports drink, some water, and a cup of mixed fruit.  Yummee.

Nick and Mike left a few minutes before me, so I was once again on my own as I entered Antietam Battlefield.  Fought on September 17, 1862, our brevet ride was almost 150 years to the date of the battle.  There were 23,000 casualties at Antietam, the largest single-day loss in American history.  The carnage shocked the peoples of both sides of the conflict, though clearly not enough to resolve the issue as the war would continue for three more years.  I parked briefly at a corn field where some particularly savage fighting took place and pondered what the scene must have looked like 150 years ago.

The Cornfield, with the New Jersey and Indiana monuments in the distance

A lovely ride through the battlefield park ensued.  In short order I came upon another important spot, The Sunken Road, where Confederates surprised advancing Yankees with devastating effect.  After several assaults, the Federals broke the Confederate line.  There are period pictures of the corpses of Confederate defenders, stacked like cord wood in this road.  Nowadays, the road is preserved with two post and rail fences and an observation tower overlooks the scene.

The Sunken Road, with some of the hills I was about to climb in the distance

Boonesboro

The battlefield ride was quickly over and it was once again time to climb over the ridge in order to get to Gettysburg.  The next 35 miles are a bit hazy for me.  Generally, they involve one common characteristic – me going uphill.  There was a long gentle climb through the town of Boonesboro, which seemed to be having some sort of civic event that I couldn’t quite fathom until a passerby flagged me down and asked directions for the reenactment.  Why she thought I would know such a thing is anybody’s guess and I was sorry to disappoint her.  My thoughts quickly returned to roads with names like Mountain Laurel Road and Mount Lena Road.  I have long ago figured out that roads with the word “mountain” in them are always troublesome, and this ride would prove to be no different.  I was grateful for the fact that a stiff breeze would be at my back for most of these ascents.

At this point I found myself intermingled once again with the Civil War Century riders.  Whenever the Randonneurs route veered in a slightly different direction, they would shout to tell me I was “off course.”  In a few miles, our paths would once again converge.  As I huffed and puffed on a particularly steep stretch, a friendly rider passed me by and said, “Halfway there!”  For him, perhaps, but not for me.  When I informed him that I still had 75 miles to go, I don’t think he believed me.  He smiled and said, “Well, have a nice ride!” and was off.

Mike and Nick on Raven Rock Road

At Mile 52, I made my way onto Raven Rock Road and confronted the day’s longest climb – 750 feet over six miles.  The grind was a steady 5-6% grade with almost no pauses.  It was tough work and it sapped my strength.  The sun was shining and temperatures were in the mid-80s when I once again happened upon Nick and Mike, who had paused to put on some sunscreen.  We chatted a bit and both cyclists offered encouraging words to me.  I knew the worst of this would be over in 15 miles and concentrated on somehow reaching that point.  Eventually, me and my bottom gear reached the summit and some descents ensued.

A word about descents is now in order.  Riding downhill is fun; of that there can be no doubt.  But when you’re riding downhill at speeds around 40mph on roads you do not know in a state of near exhaustion, the potential for disaster is always present.  I forced myself to concentrate as I flew along country roads, waiting for loose gravel or potholes that would ruin my day.  Fortunately, I found no such thing and was happy to be nearing the town of Fairfield when I happened upon the final, gut-wrenching climb of the mountains.

It occurred on a road named Sunshine Trail.  Let me just say that to give such a name to a road that inflicts so much suffering is borderline criminal.  This lovely treat, at the end of 65 miles of climbing, features 300 feet of ascent over a mile with two false summits to add to the fun.  There were century riders strewn about the hill, most of them chugging away but a few of them walking their bikes up the rise.  Knowing this was the last major effort of the day and a rest was only a couple of miles beyond, I steeled my resolved and lumbered to the top.

A happy reward on the road into Fairfield

Having finished 69 miles, I pulled into a convenience store at Fairfield and found a small band of Randonnneurs finishing their break.  Among them were Nick and Mike, who stayed a bit and chatted with me while I ate my turkey sandwich.  I was thoroughly wrung out and couldn’t imagine how I would ride another 60 miles.  I felt like I had just finished a century, but sadly had done far less than that.  My legs felt like lead.  As Mike and Nick headed out, I decided to stay for a bit longer to rest, stretch, and somehow find some energy.

Then in the gathering gloom to the west, I heard thunder.  Yikes.

Quickly, I gathered my things and struck out for Gettysburg, about 12 miles to the northeast.  The rest would have to wait.  I needed to see if I could outrun this storm.

Does Steve find the energy to finish the ride?

Does he avoid the thunderstorm?

What other silliness might transpire between here and the end?

Stay tuned for the second and final part of the DC Randonneurs Civil War Tour 200K Brevet!!!

The Post Where I Make My Wife’s Major Accomplishment A Story About Me

I went on a 40-mile ride yesterday afternoon.  It was nice, but I would prefer to tell you about what I did yesterday morning.  I watched my wife run her first half marathon.

This was the scene at the Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon, just a few minutes before the start.  I had accompanied my wife to the 7:00 AM start a few miles west of Fredericksburg and joined 8,000 other runners plus friends and supporters.  If had been like most of the spectators, I would have been stuck looking at only this view for the entirety of the 13.1 mile race, or I could have elbowed my way onto a shuttle that was to run continuously from this point to a spot in Fredericksburg.  Fortunately, I was not like most other spectators.  I had a bike.

I brought Old Ironsides out of mothballs, where it has sat patiently since the winter and evening ride season ended.  The flat pedals and flat handlebar made it ideal for the task I was to ask of it, namely zipping four miles into the heart of Fredericksburg and taking me to several points of my choosing to cheer on the missus, all while dodging other spectators, police officers, Marines, and the occasional car.

 

 

 

I was very excited for my wife and wanted to give her as much support as possible.  This required proper attire and a very loud voice.  The voice was provided to me by The Almighty and a little preparation ensured I had the attire.  I studied the race route and picked an avenue that would deposit me in Fredericksburg where I could quickly move to different places on the course to cheer her on as she passed.  To aid me, the race would send me text messages of her progress every five kilometers, which was really cool.  More on that notion later.

So, after the flyover of biplanes and the speech by the town crier of Fredericksburg, and the singing of the national anthem, and the firing of the howitzer, the race began.  I was nervous about finding my wife in the crowd, but she had no problems locating me (she is always better at finding things than I am, which plays out in any number of domestic situations).  After seeing her and screaming wildly, I mounted Old Ironsides and made my way to Fredericksburg via Fall Hill Road.

This was almost entirely downhill and I arrived there in great shape, only 20 minutes after the cannon fired.    I picked out a spot at the corner of Amelia and Prince Edward Streets (Mile 7) and waited, sipping my water bottle and monitoring my wife’s progress via automatically generated text messages.  The town had an air of expectation to it.  Many residents were on the sidewalks, eager to cheer people on.  At certain points, music could be heard.  On my way into town, I passed a quartet preparing to strut their stuff.

In a few minutes, the first runner arrived.  He was completely alone and moving impossibly fast.  Surely, there was someone in the 8,000-person field able of keeping at least within sight of the leader?  Apparently not.  Then the rest of the field started to arrive.  I watched several hundred pass, waiting to see my betrothed, and suddenly – there she was, sporting a huge smile and looking great.

Hammering at Mile 8

I jumped up and down and hollered and she gave me a quick hug and then she was off.  I hopped back on my steed and raced down Amelia Street and set up camp at Mile 8.  I knew when she would arrive as I had taken notice of a man and woman running the race as Batman and Robin, running slightly ahead of her.  These races always seem to have a few characters running in costume and this race was no exception.  Shortly after the Dynamic Duo ran past, along came Joyce, looking strong and still smiling.

I was able to see her once again at Mile 9, but missed her on my final attempt as the route passed under the Jefferson Davis Highway (too short a jump for me).  Once I figured out she was already by me, I skeedaddled back up Fall Hill Road to the Start/Finish Line.  Let me just say that even by cycling standards, that  1.5 mile hill is not insignificant.  To run it, and to do so after already running ten miles, requires a level of running fitness I can only aspire to.

I found a spot about a half mile before the end and was able to give her one last huzzah before the finish.  I then made my way through the throngs of spectators, past some blaring music played by a rock band, to the runner/spectator link up point.  I found my wife there, proudly wearing her medal, smiling broadly, and eating a banana.  I couldn’t have been more proud.  She finished with a time of 2:02:26, which put her in the top 20% of all runners and 38th out of 280 runners in her division.  Awesome.

The “Magnet Ceremony,” with Old Ironsides to the side.

We eventually made our way to the car, where we had a brief ceremony.  Last Christmas, I had purchased my wife car magnets which said 13.1 and 26.2.  Runners often put these magnets on their cars after completing a half or full marathon.  Joyce had earned her first magnet and we affixed it to the rear of the vehicle.  It was a special moment that commemorated all the hard work she had put into this achievement.

And with that, we loaded up the bike and made our way home to enjoy a beautiful Sunday.

Some Thoughts On Running vs. Cycling Events

I’ve been to a few organized rides and a few running races over the past two years and it there is no comparison to the level of spectacle and organization that running events enjoy over cycling events.  From the packet pickup and race exposition the day prior, to the flyovers, mascots, howitzers, Biggest Loser TV show contestant appearances, and the super cool automatic text updates for any runner you cared to follow, the running races have it all over the cycling races in spades.

Organization was superb, from the hundreds of porta-johns, properly closed streets with Marines and/or police at every intersection, not just the ones where you turned, the runners wanted for nothing.  Water points were properly supplied and staffed.  Meeting your runner afterward was a snap.  There was plenty of post-race food for the runners, including a free beer.  It was simply a first class event, and although other running events aren’t always this nice, they are still far better than the cycling rides I have attended.

Even the townsfolk got into the event, with thousands coming out to cheer, offer water to drink, or mists of water to run through.  My wife reports there was even one resident who offered shots of rum to any racer who wanted it.  Now that’s support!  I can’t say I have seen anything remotely like this on a cycling ride, even though I have been on some through the heart of DC.

Much of this can be explained by the economics of scale.  It is virtually impossible to get 8,000 cyclists into an event and therefore cycling event organizers have smaller budgets to work with.  It won’t make me hop off my bike anytime soon, but I couldn’t help but be a bit jealous.

I will join my wife on the roads during the Army Ten Miler this October and will once again put on my cheering T-Shirt when she races in the Marine Corps Marathon a few weeks later.  Until then, this space shall return to cycling-related business.

Chancellorsville

I got ambitious yesterday.  Aided by my wife, who transported me and my bike 30 miles to Fredericksburg, I headed out to the Chancellorsville Battlefield for a look-see and then a 55-mile return trip, the first 20 miles I had never traversed before.  I had been wanting to do this trip for several months and finally had the opportunity to give it a shot.  Although there was frost on the ground at sunrise, the forecast was for sunny weather and temperatures reaching the mid-50s.  It seemed like a good day for the attempt.

We pulled into the Spotsylvania Mall and my wife said her goodbyes, immediately after which I noticed I had forgotten my cell phone.  I always ride with my cell phone – always.  It’s my security blanket which lets me cycle with the certain knowledge that if I get into difficulty I can call my wife and hear, “You got yourself into this mess.  Now get yourself out of it.”  Now I was about to strike out into The Great Unknown (aka Spotsylvania County) with no communications device.  I believe Thomas Stevens would have been proud of me.

Obligatory Battle Map

A quick note on the battle.  Chancellorsville was fought May 2nd and 3rd, 1863, between Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the unfortunately named Union General Joseph Hooker (although the etymology of the modern-day use of “hooker” is unclear, many experts trace its use to the camp followers of Hooker’s Army of the Potomac).  With both armies staring at each other across the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, Hooker moved a large force westward, forded the river and sought to attack Lee from the West.  Lee recognized the Federal move and broke off a portion of his army to meet the threat.  The armies collided at the Chancellor Family home, located at a crossroads about fifteen miles west of Fredericksburg.  The result was Lee’s greatest victory.

I cleared out of the retail district and made my way to the battlefield on River Road, which existed during the Civil War.  This is the lesser of two roads heading toward Chancellorsville from Fredericksburg and no doubt some Confederates used it as they moved to the battlefield.  Given the road’s name, I was disappointed to glimpse only one short view of the Rappahannock River.  After ten miles, I reached the intersection of Route 3 and Elys Ford Road – the epicenter of the battle.  It was here that the Union Army collapsed upon itself after Robert E. Lee divided his smaller force (a MAJOR tactical faux pas born of necessity) and executed a surprise attack on two fronts.  17,500 men were killed on and around this field – a rate of one man per second for five hours.

The Chancellor House was destroyed during the battle under a withering Confederate artillery bombardment.  Hooker used the building as his command post and was leaning against a column when it was struck by a shell, causing a possible concussion which made it impossible for him to direct the battle for a period.  Today, all that is left is the foundation, which is preserved near the artillery pieces pictured above.

I puttered about the periphery of the battlefield but didn’t see any other monuments worthy of note.  I therefore decided to head to the park’s Visitor Center, where I came across one of the war’s most important sites – the place where Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was accidentally killed by his own pickets.  This was a stunning loss for the Confederacy which would have implications for the rest of the war.  Upon learning of Jackson’s death, Lee said, “I have lost my right arm.”  The trail is faithfully maintained and is remarkably close to the very busy Route 3.  There is a stone marker at the site, erected in 1881 by Confederate veterans.

I could have wandered some more, but I had quite a distance to go so I made my way back to Elys Ford Road and moved Northwest.  Just as was the case in the Civil War, there are few crossings of the Rappahannock River and I needed to travel 20 miles to Kelly’s Ford.  The road was pleasant, with a very picturesque view of Hunting Run Reservoir.  Oddly, the road name changed from Elys Road to Eleys Road when I crossed from Spotsvylania County to Culpeper County. There is a story there, I am sure of it, but I can’t imagine what it might be.  The air was crisp, but not cold and the leaves were in peak color.  I had nary a care in the world as I pedaled over gently rolling country.  This changed when I reached my first turn at Mile 25 – Fields Mill Road.

It was a gravel road.

I hate gravel roads.  After suffering eleven flats last summer/fall, I remain extremely risk averse when it comes to punctures.  I haven’t had a flat since February – I was due.  And I had no phone with me.  And I was nowhere near anyplace I had ever been before.  And there were no significant buildings to speak of, apart from a light sprinkling of farms.  With little choice, I decided to take it easy on this three-mile stretch of wilderness that would eventually deposit me near Kelly’s Ford and asphalt.

About a mile down the road, I began to hear gunfire.  I wondered if it was hunting season.  Whether it was officially hunting season or not, it was definitely hunting season here.  I was very grateful to be wearing my optic yellow vest.  I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be killed.  That assessment changed when the dogs came.

Let me just say it is extraordinarily difficult to cautiously manuever a gravel road while being chased by three dogs.  The first thing I abandoned was caution.  Since I am typing these words, I realize there is little drama to the outcome – I made it.  About a half mile up the road, I was rewarded with a pleasant view.  I leaned my bike against a sign which read “Warning – Coyote Trapping In Progress” and took the below picture.  I could still hear gunfire coming from the woods behind the farm houses.

I was very happy to reach the end of Fields Mill Road and rejoin Western Civilization.  I crossed Kelly’s Ford (Mile 30) and left Culpeper County for Fauquier County.  I had cycled this road once before during last October’s Great Pumpkin Ride.  I celebrated by pausing on the bridge to enjoy the view and eat a Clif Bar.

The remaining miles were uneventful.  I must say that the country roads of Fauquier County are in better condition than those of Spotsylvania or Culpeper Counties (even the paved ones).  At Mile 48 I pulled into one of my favorite rest stops, the Handymart convenience store near the west end of Quantico Marine Corps Base, and ordered a slice of pizza and a Mountain Dew.

Despite their French name, they worked well

Having refueled on quality convenience store cuisine, I had more than enough energy for the remaining twenty miles.  The sun was getting low in the sky, but I remained warm in my vest, skull cap, leggings, and brand new Garneau shoe covers (which worked MUCH better than the ones I wore last year).  I arrived home after 68 miles tired but pleased to have completed the sort of adventure that makes cycling eminently more enjoyable than any other form of exercise I can think of.

Fredericksburg Battlefield Ride

  

I tried something different today.  Rather than set out from home my wife drove me to Fredericksburg and deposited me at the National Military Park, where I began heading home on a 34-mile route.  I’ve pretty much exhausted the “loop rides” that can be accomplished from my neighborhood and this gave me an opportunity to see some different terrain and visit a battlefield I had not yet seen.

Fluid levels at 100% and ready to shove off

On the way through the park, my wife was concerned about my future.  She saw some of the hills I would traverse and said, “I believe you may have bitten off more than you can chew.”  These hills were actually fairly tame.  Had she seen the hills I would be riding on 15 miles down the road, she would have had me admitted for psychiatric treatment.  Despite these foreboding words, she was most helpful in getting my gear ready to go at the far end of the park.  She took this pic, gave me a kiss and a good luck wish, then struck out for the local mall. 

For those who may not be familiar with the battle, Fredericksburg was fought on Dec 13, 1863.  Union forces under the command of Ambrose Burnside attacked Confederate forces under the command of Robert E. Lee.   The Confederates were strung out on a ridgeline that overlooked the town, located next to the Rappahannock River.  The park follows this ridgeline and ends (or begins, depending on your perspective) at a Visitor’s Center located in the town.  The battle was one of the most one-sided of the war, with Union forces suffering horrific casualties in a series of frontal assaults against this ridgeline.

Now, on with the ride.

This is a great park.  If we lived nearby, my wife and I would be walking/running/riding on this road regularly.  Many others were doing just that.  Initially, my path was downhill as I was leaving Prospect Hill, occupied by Stonewall Jackson’s corps during the battle.  At the bottom of the hill I found a large stone pyramid next to some train tracks.  This is actually a marker erected for 19th Century train passengers, letting them know they were passing through the battlefield.  The pyramid is known as Meade’s Pyramid, named after MG George Meade, whose division of Pennsylvanians breached the Confederate lines at this location.  It was the only Union unit to manage this feat and was quickly beaten back by a Confederate counterattack organized by Jackson.

The view from Lee Hill

My pace was extremely slow as I stopped to read all the markers along the way.  Not good for cardiovascular conditioning, but I figured that aspect of the ride would come soon enough.  I climbed Lee Hill, so named because GEN Lee set his headquarters on this spot.  At the time, he could view the entire battle.  Now, the site is overgrown with trees (as are many Civil War battlefields today), so it is difficult to get a sense of how it looked at the time.  Lee and LTG James Longstreet were both nearly killed twice on this hill – once when a Confederate artillery piece exploded due to a faulty barrel and a second time when a Union artillery shell landed within yards of them and failed to detonate.   It was here that Lee said, “It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we would grow too fond of it.”

Shelter and displays at Lee Hill

After leaving Lee Hill, I left the park and headed into town to swing by the Visitor’s Center.  It was only half a mile away, but I needed to get through a busy intersection at Rte 3.  The Visitor’s Center is a small but very park-like location situated next to a military cemetary.  The Center is near perhaps the battle’s most famous feature, “The Sunken Road.”  Confederate soldiers behind a stone wall repelled 16 separate assaults which resulted in over 9,000 Union casualties.  Eye witnesses described the Union soldiers falling like snow flakes landing on a warm road.  The pic at the top of the post is from this point.

Military cemetary and memorial to the Union Army's 5th Corps.

I left the Visitor’s Center and headed north toward the river.  For 10:30 on a weekday morning, there was surprisingly little traffic in Old Town Fredericksburg.  The town was destroyed during the battle during the artillery duel and subsequent looting by Federal soldiers.  After the battle, Confederates reoccupied the town and were shocked at the damage.  When a soldier asked Stonewall Jackson what should be done with people who could do such a thing, Jackson replied, “Kill ‘em.  Kill all of ‘em.” 

Memorial to a South Carolinian soldier who brought water to wounded from both armies.

I then swung onto a bridge over the Rappahannock River.  Union troops needed to cross this river to begin their attack.  When their army arrived, the Confederates were not ready to defend the area but the Federals needed to wait 17 days for the arrival of boats to ferry the men across.  This time was invaluable to the Confederates, who were able to prepare proper defensive positions.  The failure to bring up the boats was either an engineer, transportation, or supply failure.  Since I have friends in all three fields, I will happily blame all of them for the mistake!

The Rappahannock River.

On the north side of the Rappahannock, the park begins again with the Chatham House – a home where Robert E. Lee courted his eventual wife and used by the Union as a headquarters during the fight.  I had spent over an hour traveling only eight miles and felt that another delay would be one too many.  I pressed on, traveling along the river and treated to an occasional pretty view.

At mile 10, I reached Rte 1.  There is no prettiness or pleasantries about this road.  Just a gazillion cars and almost no shoulder.  In places there truly is no shoulder, just a 2-3 foot drop to a ditch, beginning about two inches from the white lane paint.  And there were lots and lots of hills.  I was traveling through Stafford County, which must mean “Land of Too Many Hills” in Algonquin.  On my Garmin elevation data, I counted ten distinct hills on this 19-mile stretch of road.  On each one, I was treated to numerous near-misses by local traffic.  As I climbed each hill, I waited for the seemingly inevitable idiot on a cell phone who would give me the opportunity to visit Stafford County Hospital.  Fortunately, that didn’t occur.  The closest miss was about six inches.

And here’s a tip: when you’re going to have your wife drop you off far from home, check the prevailing winds.  I was moving north the entire trip in precisely the opposite direction of a constant 10 mph breeze.  It wasn’t enough to become a major problem, but it was a bother to travel the ENTIRE way against the wind.

I pedaled over Aquia Creek, past Quantico Marine Base, and through Dumfries, the traffic increasing as I moved northward (no surprise there).  Back on Rte 234, my wife passed by on her way home from shopping.  She shouted some words of encouragement, which was quite nice to hear (another first for me – words of encouragement while on a ride).  My bike and I made it home in fine shape.

Oh yeah – I avoided that Dunkin Donuts parking lot in Dumfries.  Those people are crazy.