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!


Army Ten Miler

click for details

The 2012 Army Ten Miler was a much more satisfying experience than the previous year, due almost entirely to the fact that my calf muscle was not behaving as if it had been ripped from my fibula.  Regular readers will know that I recently suffered the same injury to the same calf and the possibility of a repeat of last year’s travails was looming large.  Lots of massages, ice, heat helped rehabilitate it to an acceptable level.  Icy-Hot bandages, compression sleeves, motrin, and new shoes helped prevent reinjury.

First, my apologies for a lack of photos.  It’s difficult to photograph a running race as a participant.  It means lugging a camera with you.

The day was sunny and cool, but not frigid, and we managed to stay warm enough while waiting in the Pentagon’s South Parking Lot for about an hour.  Runners face difficult wardrobe decisions that cyclists do not.  They are forced to wait in the cold for extended periods and quickly warm up once the event starts.  Stowing excess cold weather gear is not an option.  They have come up with two general solutions to this problem:

1.  Suffer in the cold and do just fine after the race starts.

2.  Bring some throw away clothes (or a plastic bag converted to a shirt) and stay warm before the race.  Discard when they are no longer necessary.

I largely fall into Category 1, but I did use some disposable gloves which I tossed to the side after crossing the Potomac (around Mile 2).  They are purpose-built for this very thing and I was glad to have them.

Pre-race events were filled with parachutists from the Army Parachute Team, the National Anthem, and mercifully no speeches from the dignitaries.  The starting gun sounded in the distance for the Wounded Warriors, who would start five minutes before the official race start.  Nice touch, I thought.  I would eventually catch up with these folks, and watching them overcome their disabilities is always inspirational for me.  Everyone was giving them great support and I was happy to do likewise as I passed each one.  I suspect there were several I never caught up with.  Simply remarkable.

Bolivar’s Statue

It’s also remarkable how much more enjoyable an event is when you are not wondering how you will finish the next 50 feet.  I noticed statues I had never seen before, such as the one of Simon Bolivar at Foggy Bottom.  I couldn’t imagine why that guy earned a coveted spot a few blocks from the White House (the answer – which I discovered after I got home – is that it was a gift from the Republic of Venezuela to the U.S. in 1958).  I was able to enjoy the sights of DC, something I never grow tired of despite having done several events there over the years.

I took it easy for the first five miles just to make sure everything was ok, going at about 90% effort.  After that, I pushed things a little more.  Thanks goes to Tootlepedal for his “negative split” strategy.  It worked quite well.  I finished with a time of 1:29:58, about 13 minutes faster than last year.  I was pleased to break (by two seconds) the 9:00/mile pace.  Out of over 21,000 finishers, my overall placing was 7,931 – up from 14,513 last year.  I managed to improve my place in the 45-49 Men’s Division to 832, up from 1,354 last year.  Plenty to build on for next year.

You may be curious about Diesel.  She smoked the course with a time of 1:25:44.  She improved her time by six minutes from last year and finished 102nd in her division of 1,017 women.  More impressively, she was not the least bit sore and reported this morning that she could run another ten miles today if she wanted to (something your humble scribe cannot say).  She won’t do that because she has her first marathon to run this Sunday.  It is worth repeating that for most of her adult life, Diesel focused on raising our kids and maintaining a household and she did no specific exercise of any kind.  It was only three years ago that she began walking and only 18 months ago when she ran her first race – a 5k.  I am in awe.  At the marathon, I’ll be leading her official cheering section.  Perhaps next year I will run with her.

Now, where’s my bike?

2012 Crystal Ride

Over 1,800 of us gathered in Crystal City Sunday morning to ride six 15 km laps around Northern Virginia.  As I waiting patiently in the starts corral, I was pretty sure a few things were about to happen:

  • It would be hot
  • The course would be fast
  • There would be at least one crash

Subsequent events would prove me to be right on all counts.

A portion of the 1,827 riders at the start

After a brief delay to ensure the police had the roads properly closed, the starting command was given and the Great Horde began to inch forward.  I was hoping to improve on my 17.9 mph average pace through better fitness, weighing less (I am about seven pounds lighter than this time last year), and carrying less (my wife had volunteered to act as my support team, keeping my food/water available for me on each lap).  Immediately, I knew my suspicions of a faster course to be accurate.  Gone were the pothole-stricken side roads and hairpin turns from last year’s event.  In their place was the wide-open Route 110 Highway to Arlington.  It was easy to find a paceline moving at 22 mph and latch on.

A second prediction came true very quickly as well.  At Mile 3.5, the peloton came to a dramatic halt as three cyclists wrecked.  With much shouting of warnings to trailing riders, catastrophe was averted (for us, at least, if not the riders who crashed) and we were able to slowly get past the incident.  Nobody appeared to be seriously injured, which is to say they were conscious and able to limp about with a fair amount of blood but no obvious bone fractures.  In short order, we were zipping along again toward the USAF Memorial on the very road that was closed to my wife and I during the unfortunate Bike DC SNAFU a month ago.  After climbing the hill to the Memorial, we flew back down and made our way into Crystal City for the completion of Lap 1.

Average pace: 19.9 mph.  WOW!

Life was good.  I was feeling fresh and there were plenty of pacelines to latch on to.  I was positively elated when I completed Lap 2 with an average pace of 20.0 mph.  Even faster!  I stopped briefly at the There And Back Again Cycling Team Resupply Point (my wife), got a new water bottle and some Clif Shot Blocks, and was off.

I was reminded of why I liked this event so much last year – even though it is a relatively short (56 mile) ride, it is conducted at breakneck speed and with chaos all around you.  It definitely has the feel of the chariot race scene in Ben Hur, although I did not see anyone with scythed wheels (something for me to consider for next year).  Bikes were breaking all over the place, their riders hurriedly performing tire changes or swearing at their derailleurs, broken chains, or other mechanical issues.  There were occasional crashes and rumors of crashes.  In addition to the accident at Mile 3.5, I saw a man being loaded onto a stretcher in Crystal City near the end of Lap 3.  He was bleeding profusely from his knee, leading me to believe he probably hit a patch of gravel on a turn and laid his bike down.  While I find great enjoyment on touring rides, there’s something to be said for an annual foray into the madcap world of criterium-style racing.

I dropped about a minute off my pace after Lap 3, giving me a slight cause for concern.  The field had spread out by this point, making finding a paceline increasingly difficult.  The sun was also climbing into the sky and it was  becoming quite hot.  My Garmin (which was once again loyally providing me data) informed me the temperature was 85 degrees and steadily rising.  I had brought more energy food and liquid than last year and hoped that would be the difference.

A rare photo of Yours Truly riding a bike, sadly without a paceline – a condition all too common for me after Lap 3.

At this point, let me share with you my official Gripe Of The Ride.  I’ve always got at least one thing to complain about, and here is this ride’s gripe: overjudicious use of the phrase, “On Your Left.”

Cyclists are expected to “ride right,” meaning they should stay as far to the right as possible (for readers in the UK, Australia, Japan, Fiji, and a few other places where automobiles are on the wrong side of the road, simply hold these instructions up to a mirror and they will make sense to you).  When attempting to pass another rider, a cyclist should check his blind spot and ensure nobody is coming before beginning the overtake.  Cyclists approaching from the rear should shout, “On your left” to let other riders know of their presence.

That’s the rule.  It’s a good rule.  You will note that nowhere in the rule is there a God-given right to scream at people who are in your way, just because you are going faster than them.  More than once, I was in the act of overtaking a cyclist when an even faster cyclist would catch up with me, whereupon he would scream, “ON YOUR LEFT!!!!” and attempt to shoot lasers at me out of his eyeballs.  I get it that he and his little group wanted to maintain their pace, but the road is sometimes crowded and things need a moment or two to sort themselves out.  Terribly sorry.  The pompous attitude was annoying and gave me thoughts as to how I might silence the perpetrators.  These thoughts weren’t helping me to do well in the race, or even keeping me out of prison, so I discarded them and focused on riding as fast as I could.

While staying to the right.  Except to pass.  After checking my blind spot.

End of gripe.

After Lap 4, I pulled over for my final resupply of shot blocks and another water bottle.  I noticed I had lost another 90 seconds over the previous lap.  My average pace had dropped to 18.9 mph and I could feel the onset of significant fatigue setting in.  The shot blocks were increasingly difficult to eat and the Gatorade was increasingly too sweet to drink.  I think a better combination at this point would have been plain old water with the shot blocks.  Live and learn.  Others were feeling worse than I.  I saw many riders walking their bike up the USAF Memorial hill and there was even one fellow laying on the ground, his buddy trying to massage some severe leg cramps.  I decided to save what little energy reserve I had left for the final lap.  I finished Lap 5 with a pace of 18.4 mph.  It was now over 90 degrees.


With the possibility of failing to best last year’s pace looming before me, I put the hammer down.  At this point, my “hammer” was quite small, something along the lines of what a jeweler might use in watch repair.  Still, it was all I had left and I used it as well as I could.  Then, a really bad thing happened – while climbing the stupid hill leading to the USAF Memorial for the final time, I cramped in my left hamstring.  This has never happened to me beforewhile riding, so it was quite an experience.

Now, a normal person probably would have gotten off his bike and tended to his condition.  But I was on that hill and there was NO WAY I was going to get off my bike on that climb and have people think I couldn’t make it to the top.  The shame would have been unbearable.  So, I massaged my own hamstring while continuing to climb as best I could.  It was an interesting sensation – feeling my muscle spasm while demanding it continue to crank my pedals.  I made it up the hill and enjoyed my final descent.

(By the way, thin guys, please think of us heavy guys on the descent and move your butts over so we can fly by you.  It’s the only time we truly have an advantage over you and we’d like to enjoy it. Thanks ever so much.)

I was well and truly gassed for the last three miles.  Any serious attempt to pedal hard brought on new spasms in the hamstring.  I did what I could as I slowly watched my average pace shrink before my eyes.  As I crossed the finish line, I grimaced at the result: 17.9 mph – the same as last year.

I hopped off my bike and joined the line of riders waiting to collect their medals.  There, I was greeted by my bride and crew chief of the There And Back Again Cycling Team, who gave me lots of praise and more fluids to drink.  Although I didn’t best my pace from last year, I didn’t do worse and that is something, at least.  I believe I just need to tweak my food and hydration strategies and possibly not go out quite so hard in the beginning.  Stay tuned – only 364 more days until I get to test those theories out at next year’s ride!

Sporting helmet hair and feeling a tad warm at the finish

Crisis Averted

The horrible, unending saga (four days) of my disabled Garmin has mercifully come to a close.  The hero of our story is loyal reader and frequent contributor Folksnake, who provided a link to another blog which was also discussing the issue.  One of the several possible solutions mentioned in that blog involved simultaneously pressing three of the four buttons on the Garmin and watching it reset.  This worked for me, the only additional nuisance being I needed to reenter all the settings that make the computer work (age, weight, time zone, etc…).

For his contribution, Folksnake has been awarded a Lifetime Membership to There And Back Again’s Premium Content Area, when and if such a section should ever be added to this blog.  To be perfectly honest, there are no plans to make a section like this or to charge anything whatsoever for any part of the site, but if this service ever does exist, Folksnake will get it for free!

Crystal Ride Preview.  Sunday’s USAF Crystal Ride is the closest thing to a race that I’ll enter this year (or ever, most likely).  Although the event takes great pains to point out it is a ride, not a race, they do time riders using cool magnetic chips and publish ride results which include overall finishing position.  While I was on the course last year, it definitely felt like a race.  Roads were closed and people were hammering through a criterium-style route in the mean streets of Crystal City and around the Pentagon.  At times, it felt like the chariot race scene in Ben Hur.  Bikes were breaking down all over the place and I saw two nasty crashes.  It was a great time!

Loyal readers will know that the 3.5 hour time standard to ride 100km pushed me to the limit last year, and I sheepishly collected by gold medal despite falling short of the standard by 2:32.  I was looking forward to breaking that barrier this year, but that will no longer be a challenge for me as the race organizers shortened the course.

Instead of eight 12.5km laps (all cool cycling events must measure their distances using the metric system), we will ride six 15km laps.  This trims the length of the course by 10km, and thus the finishing time of 3.5 hours is extremely achievable to me.  To motivate myself, I have switched my goals from simply getting the gold medal to bettering my average pace of 17.9 mph (the race may be metric, but I am not) and/0r my overall finishing position of 245th place.  Last year there were about 1,600 riders and I understand this year’s field will be larger.

The course looks similar to last year’s, but there are subtle differences that should make it run faster.  There are fewer hairpin turns and longer straightaways.  This should allow riders to build up speed and form pacelines for longer periods.  The straighter course may mean fewer crashes, which will take some of the adventure out of things.  As with last year, I will get the opportunity to climb the hill leading to the USAF Memorial, but there will only be six ascents this year instead of eight – another “lightening of the load,” in my view.

I believe I am all set.  I am well into my “taper phase” (I have found that I am extraordinarily good at tapering), I’ve cleaned up the Madone, bought my energy food, and fixed my Garmin.  Check back in on Monday evening for my exciting race report!

The Army Ten Miler

I have concluded my recent foray into the running world with today’s edition of the Army Ten Miler.  Since I am too sore at the moment to do anything besides type, this is a great opportunity to tell you how it went.

The DC Armory, and a portion of the crowd waiting to get in

Things started on Saturday at the DC Armory, where my wife and I went to pick up our race packets.  The fact that this event was on a completely different scale than any cycling ride I have been on was immediately brought home in the form of a mammoth line of people waiting to get inside.  Outside the armory, there were military displays, rap music singers, furry mascots entertaining the children, police security, members of The Old Guard playing the piccolo, drums, and flute, and a US Special Forces dirigible flying over the scene.  This was a marked contrast from most cycling packet pickups, which are either sent to me in the mail or given to me at a nondescript table after a wait of one or two minutes.

The vendor area - sorry for the fuzziness, but hopefully you get the feel for how big it was

Once inside, we were confronted with a row of about 20 registration stalls.  Each stall was responsible for a series of bib numbers.  I was proud of the fact that I knew my and my wife’s bib number and quickly located the right stall.  Otherwise, I would have been forced to look our names up on a bulletin board containing the bib numbers of all 22,000 registered runners.  We got our packet, then shuffled over to a magnetic strip to make sure the magnet which carried our personal data was properly working.  Then we got our race shirts.  Then we were free to browse amongst the 100+ vendors inside the armory.  It was amazing to see and once again on a scale unlike anything I have seen with cycling.

On Race Day, we were on the road at 6:15 AM.  Parking would be limited, so we pulled into the Franconia-Springfield Metro and took the train into Pentagon Station.  The train was full and EVERYBODY was wearing running clothes.  At 7:45, we eventually made it to our designated “coral” (assigned based on estimated finish time) and began to wait.  I blatantly plagiarized Mr. Tootlepedal and said to my wife, “Many people are asleep right now.  They think they are having a good time.  Boy are they wrong.”  Tootlepedal, your phrase made my wife smile and for that I am in your debt.

Runners weren't allowed to bring cameras, so this stock footage from last year's race will have to do

After watching some Army sky divers jump onto the starting line, we heard a cannon fire, signifying the start of the race.  The first group to leave were wounded warriors.  Then the fastest wave left.  Then the second fastest wave.  Then us, in the final wave.  We slowly walked up Boundary Channel road with the Pentagon on our left until we reached the Starting Line.  Music was blaring and people were excited.  We crossed the Starting Line 25 minutes after the lead group was off.  This didn’t affect our race time, but it does give you a sense for how long it takes to move 22,000 people up a road.

So far, so good.  My wife was thoroughly amused to see several men break off to relieve themselves in some large bushes.  The mob was very congested and the pace was slow.  My calf was holding up fine and I promised myself not to push things until after Mile 7.  After half a mile, my wife spied an opening in the crowd, wished me well and was off.  I would see her again in about 60 minutes.

We wandered toward Arlington National Cemetery and got on the Arlington Memorial Bridge across the Potomac.  This was about 1.5 miles into the run and it was here I felt the first twinge in my right calf – the one that has plagued my training for the past six weeks.


This was not good at all.  It was only a twinge, but I knew from experience the thing could blow at any moment and with no warning.  I was extremely cautious as I approached the Lincoln Memorial.  I adopted a running style used in the Army when running in formation.  It is a shuffling maneuver commonly known as “The Airborne Shuffle.”  Rather than fully extend my legs and thereby flex my calves, The Airborne Shuffle allowed me to putter along at a pace around 10 minutes/mile.  At this pace, I reckoned I could hold out the entire distance.

As I approached Mile 4 and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, my calf took a dramatic turn for the worse.  It was not quite the complete rupture I felt 10 days ago (which caused me to abandon any training since), but it hurt.  A lot.


I could still run.  Barely.  All around me, people were beginning to walk.  To be sure, many were passing me, but I was still passing some and this buoyed my morale.  I bit down hard, slowed my pace further, and resolved to gut this thing out.  Maybe the pain would subside if I just kept pushing it a bit.  I hoped so, because I honestly couldn’t see myself doing another six miles in the state I was in.

Onward I puttered, past the Lincoln Memorial again and up Independence Avenue.  The Tidal Basin was on my right and the Washington Monument was on my left.  The sun was shining, it is was a beautiful day, and I couldn’t care less because my leg was screaming at me.  Along the way, there were water stations, marching bands playing inspirational music (which always seemed to be a selection from one of the Rocky movies, for some odd reason) and hundreds of spectators cheering us on.  It’s always cool to be running on roads that are normally clogged with traffic and today was no exception.  The fans and music added extra ambiance that added to the effect.

As the Great Tide Of Humanity moved east on Independence Avenue, we eventually came upon runners coming back in our direction having reached the turnaround point.  I looked in vain for my wife amongst the hundreds of runners I passed and didn’t see her.  As I was dodging a person who was slowing down in front of me (a not uncommon occurrence) I heard someone shout, “Steve!”  I look up and briefly saw my wife, who was by me in a flash.  I was heartened to see her doing well and for her to know I at least reached Mile 6 in a conscious state.

My leg was feeling a bit better at this point and I was ready to pick things up a bit at the turn around point (Mile 6.5).  I was very frustrated, knowing I could be doing so much better.  There once was a day when I could run a mile in less than six minutes and I routinely strung together eight minute miles without difficulty.  Here I was, hovering between 10 and 11 minutes per mile.  My cardio was fine and I was barely out of breath.  I could have been doing better but I was not in the right shape and I pushed my training before I was ready, thus giving me the chronic injury I was now dealing with.  I was feeling sorry for myself.

I then saw a man running with no legs.

He was a wounded warrior who had lost both legs ABOVE the knee.  He was running on two prostheses with a female friend.  Usually, one normally needs legs to run.  It’s kind of a basic requirement.  Not this guy.  He was awesome to behold and it made me remember my sore calf muscle was not something I should be feeling sorry about.  It was very inspirational.

It was now Mile 7 and my leg was behaving, if not cooperating.  I had plenty of energy left and decided to see what I could do.  I lengthened my stride and picked up my pace.  Briefly, I was 30 years old again and moving at about an 8:30 pace.  It felt great, despite the annoying problem in my calf.  I was passing all sorts of people and would have done even better except the roads were still too clogged to allow a straight run.  I was dodging and slowing to get around all sorts of slower people.  I was reminded of Gerry’s recent cycling event when he took pride in passing riders with lower bib numbers than his.  This event identifies runners by the color of their bib.  Mine was orange and the only group slower than me wore Purple.  I was pleased to see I was passing some white bibs and some blue bibs.

After passing the Holocaust Museum on 14th Street and the Jefferson Memorial, we were approaching the 14th Street Bridge back over the Potomac.  My calf sent me two renewed spasms that told me it had just about enough of my zipping along and would soon put a stop to it if I did not do so myself.  I dialed my pace back to about 10 minutes/mile, crossed the bridge, and turned into the Pentagon’s South Parking lot.  The last mile was a tough one – and not just because of my calf.  I was physically spent at this point.  I eventually made it to the finish line.

I was really, really glad to be done.

As I shuffled up the road in a sea of fellow runners, my mind turned to the practical matter of linking up with my wife.  We had agreed to meet at the finish line, but it was immediately apparent that would not be possible.  The runners were herded along for another half mile, where we were given water and finishing coins.  My wife was waiting for me near the coin station (a huge area where hundreds of runners were queuing up in several lines for their coin) and somehow managed to spot me.  Thank God for that because I don’t know what I would have done next.  I suppose I would have wandered the area aimlessly until we eventually met.  That would not have been fun in the least.

We got our coins and toured the vast sea of hospitality tents set up in the parking lot.  There was some more water and plenty of snack food in the form of bananas, bagels, cookies and other treats.  Many military units had set up display tents and were handing out free items like posters, tote bags and whatnot.  After a few minutes, we headed back to the Pentagon Metro stop and joined the throng of people attempting to get on a train.  An hour later, we pulled into our driveway and I was happy to be home.

In the end, my 1:43:51 time gave me a place of 14,404 out of 21,914 runners.  In my age group, I finished 1s 1,342 out of 1,747.  It was not my finest hour, but I was tremendously proud of my wife, who finished twelve minutes ahead of me and 201st out of 981 in her age group.  Apart from a 5K run, this was her first-ever organized race and she began jogging only 18 months ago.  When I talked her into registering for this event back in May, she wasn’t sure if she would be able to finish the race.  Not only did she finish, but she excelled.

Now it’s time to get back on my bike.  It was nice to see the “Running Life” and I will probably still engage in the occasional jog around the block, but I’m ready to feel the wind on my face and watch the miles fly by without feeling the effects of massive concussion injuries in my feet, ankles, shins, calves, and knees.


Crystal Ride

26 minutes.

Fast people at the front. You can barely make out Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz talking to some riders

That was the thought that was on my mind as I joined the crowd at the starting point for the Crystal Ride.  To complete eight laps in 3.5 hours, I needed to complete each lap in 26 minutes.  If I could manage that, I would receive a shiny gold medal.

Piece of cake.

My view at the start. You can make out the blue starting sign in the distance. There were an equal number of people behind me.

The ride was supposed to start in two waves.  The first wave would consist of anyone who earned a Gold Medal at last year’s ride.  The second wave would be everybody else.  That meant I would be starting in the back half of the field and the folks I most wanted to be with (guys who were most likely to move at the pace I wanted to be at) would be extremely difficult to catch up to. I hoped I could weave my way through the crowd and link up with a paceline from Wave 1.  As it turned out, we all started at the same time.

Laps 1 & 2: Getting Acclimated

After some brief safety announcements and comments from the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz, the PA Announcer counted down from ten, and we were off.  Well, the front of the pack was off at least.  I didn’t move for many seconds and it was over a minute before I reached the start line – one minute eaten up just to get to the start!

The field was very packed as we moved up Crystal Drive.  The pace was slow and turns onto 12th Street and Army-Navy Drive were an adventure.  After crossing under I-395, we came upon the first of several hairpin turns, which were also very exciting with the course clogged with riders.  Fortunately, nobody was hurt (yet).

As we reached Boundary Channel Drive on the East side of the Pentagon, the field opened up a tick and I could pick up the pace.  Turns were still tricky with so many cyclists, many of whom seemed uncomfortable with so many riders about them.  On Washington Blvd, we had plenty of space and I briefly linked up with a paceline.  After only a mile, however, we were at the Air Force Monument.

A word about the USAF Monument is in order here.  It sits atop a rather significant hill – about 100 feet high.  Climbing it once was no problem, although some of the weaker riders were struggling with it.  I wondered how I would feel about it on my eighth attempt.  The descent on the backside was luxurious – nobody was beating me and my extra “ballast” on the downhills!  I flew by people who reeled me back in a half mile later when we climbed a smaller hill to get back on Washington Blvd.

The rest of the route was basically a backtrack of the route to the Monument.  The entire circuit was 7.7 miles.  I came up on the Start/Finish Line and noted my split:  26 minutes, 40 seconds.

This was going to be tougher than I had hoped.

My initial strategy was to build up a cushion of a few minutes each lap which I could use in the later laps to take pictures or go at a slightly slower pace.  I was thus alarmed to be 40 seconds behind schedule after my very first lap.  This was due to the bunched up start, but I was still hoping to make up the difference as the field opened up a bit.   You will note that there are no more pictures in this post, which should give you some sense of how the next three hours went for me.

With the field spread out somewhat, I was finally able to pick up my pace on Lap 2.  Finding a paceline was difficult as there were so many turns to negotiate and the pacelines tended to break up at each one.  By the time a gaggle of strangers got themselves organized into another line, we would arrive at turn and the line would break apart.  Each lap had fifteen turns that required braking.  Still, I was very fresh and moving at a 20 mph pace.  I finished the 2nd lap at 50 minutes, 40 seconds – I now had 1:20 in the bank.

Laps 3 & 4: Mayhem

I was eager to add to my slight cushion on time.  I bounced over the potholes, asphalt cracks, etc… in Crystal City and hammered as best I could.  Apparently, I was not the only person with this idea.  At this point, most of the weaker riders were to the rear and the very good riders in organized teams were well to the front.  That left us – pretty good riders with no teams, panicking to keep on pace.  People were darting in and out of groups, slower riders didn’t know to keep to the right, people fought with each other to get into pacelines as they quickly emerged.   The ride took on a different character at this point and I believe I now know something of what it must have been like to be in a Roman chariot race. 

The first accident I saw happened right in front of me at the Air Force Monument.  A guy simply cut in front of another rider’s line and his rear wheel hit the trailing rider’s front wheel.  They both went down.  Hard.  I grabbed my breaks for all they were worth and felt my rear wheel come off the ground.  Fortunately, I stayed upright and nobody plowed into me.  The trailing rider had a nasty scrape on his left knee and elbow.  I stayed long enough to make sure he was all right and left when a race official arrived.

Bikes were breaking all over the place.  I saw at least twenty riders dealing with flat tires and broken chains.  I think the rough city streets were taking their toll.  Near the beginning of Lap 4, I saw my second accident.  This one involved a woman who was attempting to pass a group and got too close to the curb.  Her tire lodged in a storm grate and she flew over the top of her handlebars.  She was holding her ankle in agony when I passed.  A race official was already there, so I continued onward.

As I climbed the Monument’s hill for the fourth time, it was losing its charm on me.  Several riders were walking their bikes.  No f’ing way was that going to be me.  As I reached the plateau and passed by a bandstand, there was a woman on the side of the road who saw my jersey and yelled, “Go Army!  Hooah!”  Each time I passed her, she shouted encouragement to me.  I am in her debt.

As I returned to the Start/Finish Line, I knew I needed a time better than 1:45:00.  I crossed at 1:41:45.  I had built a three minute, fifteen second cushion.  I was hoping to be about ten minutes ahead at this point.  I now knew there would be no photography on the second half.  There would only be hanging on for dear life.

Laps 5-8:  Hanging On For Dear Life

I was beginning to tire and was worried I would “bonk” if I kept pushing myself.  So I slowed a tick and looked for opportunities to latch onto pacelines.  These were maddeningly few, due to the constant stopping and starting for turns.  And that stupid Air Force Monument hill wasn’t getting any smaller.  I still kept my bike out of its lowest gear, but that was quickly becoming my best option on this part of the course.

After Lap 6, the cushion I had built up over the first four laps was down to 90 seconds.  It was here that the ride leaders lapped me.  I was expecting this and was prepared to latch onto their group, but they flew by me at mach speed and there was no way I could keep up with that.  In Lap 7, I resorted to my “Granny Gear” on the Monument hill.  The riders who wanted to get a silver medal (four laps) were now off the course, giving me plenty of room.  I occasionally found myself several hundred feet from the nearest rider.  I was hoping I would have enough energy in the final lap to give it one last push.  As it turned out, I would need that energy.  I finished Lap 7 fifteen seconds behind the required pace.

Sadly, I didn’t have the energy.

I gave it my best.  At various points I felt a stitch in my back, a cramp in my left thigh, and dealt with a couple of boughts of nausea.  Both of my feet were very sore near the toes/balls of the feet.  My handlebar tape was unraveling on one side.  Life was hard.  Still, I stood on my pedals on my final ascent of “the hill” and gave the downhills everything I had. 

Everything I had wasn’t enough.  I finished at 3:32:30, two minutes and thirty seconds too slow for gold.

Ethical Dilemmas At The Medal Pickup

I exited the course and got into a line of about 100 riders waiting to turn in their timing chip and pick up their medal.  I was very disappointed.  150 seconds!  If only I hadn’t burned a minute to get to the starting line.  If only I hadn’t stopped for that crash.  If only…

I realized, of course, this is how losers talk.  And that’s what I was today, so I guess the line of thinking made sense.

I then pondered my average pace of 17.9 mph.  This was actually better than what was required to complete the course.  The problem was that my cycling line was slightly longer (1.3 miles longer, to be exact) due to starting a bit back in the field and rounding corners a little wide over time.  I actually covered the advertised distance within the time limit.  Therefore, didn’t I actually do what I set out to do?

No.  That would be a rationalization, brought about by despair, exhaustion and slight dehydration.  What I set out to do was complete the course in 3.5 hours.  And I didn’t do that.  Period.

I gave my chip to a volunteer who threw it into a bin without checking it.  I expected her to put it into some sort of machine that would tell her my time.   “How will you know what my time is?” I asked.

“Did you complete eight laps?” she asked.  When I nodded in the affirmative, she said, “Just stay in line and you’ll get a gold medal.”

Hmmm.   When I approached the medal desk, I explained to the volunteer that I had completed eight laps, but not within the 3.5 hour time limit.  “That’s ok,” she said.  “You did the eight laps before the course closed and that is the standard.  Congratulations!”

I sheepishly took the medal and made my way back to the parking garage, where I inhaled a Gatorade I had on ice in my truck.  This was a very tough event for me, tougher than the century ride I completed last month.  Still, I managed to set a new personal best pace for a long distance ride (note: I consider the old pace as still being the official record as pacelines were involved today).  It was fun to be in a big event that had more of a “racelike” quality than traditional century rides.  If I do this ride next year, I hope to shave the 2:30 off my time and remove any doubt as to the legitimacy of my accomplishment!

Crystal Ride Packet Pickup

I stopped by the Crystal City Marriott and picked up my ride packet for Sunday’s Crystal Ride.  Immediately, I could tell this was a tad more serious than the handful of events I’ve done previously.  I found MANY courteous and well-organized volunteers helpfully pointing me toward the registration room, where I found even MORE courteous and well-organized volunteers prepared to quickly sign me in and give me a ride packet.

There were a few dozen riders picking up their packets along with me.  Although the picture on the right doesn’t indicate it, most looked like serious cyclists, wearing cool cycling apparel like those floppy hats you see old-fashioned cyclists wear, or just simply looking fit.  I was certainly one of the heaviest amongst them.  And the oldest.  This should be great!

In my ride packet I got my race numbers (front and back of jersey this time), my bib number on a sticker for my helmet, and an ankle bracelet that I need to wear in order to automatically record my times.  I also got plenty of swag, including my race T-Shirt, a water bottle from Excelsior College (I have no idea what the connection is), a D-Clip and compass from Boeing Corp, samples of Larabar Fruit Bars, and a sample of Cascadian Farm Organic Cereal (available at many fine retailers in the Washington, DC, area!). 

How serious am I taking this ride?  I took the reflectors off my bike, but I did not shave my legs.  That should give you a sense of where I’m at on the “cycling fanaticism spectrum.” 

The ride is set up like a “criterium,” meaning I’ll do laps on the mean streets of Crystal City, Pentagon City, around the Pentagon and the USAF Memorial.  Each lap is 12.5 kms – to be cool, a cycling event must measure all distances in kms.  My coolness continues to be at very low levels, so I can report to you that this is 7.77 miles.  If I can do eight laps (100 kms or 62.13 miles) in 3.5 hours, I earn a gold medal.  That’s an average pace of 17.75 mph.  I think I can do that, even with hairy legs.

It should be a lot of fun riding among the 15-story buildings of Crystal City and heading out to the Pentagon.  This area is normally clogged with traffic, so I imagine it will be a bit surreal to have the roads closed for the event.