Monday, April 27, 2009

Heart of the South "Tune-up" Race

The Heart of the South ("HOS") was our first opportunity to gain some experience riding in a two-man team race. Due to scheduling conflicts, Richard was unable to participate, but we were fortunate that our friend Mark Pattinson was willing to do the race with me (Charlie). We spent the week before the HOS doing training rides from Mark’s home in Tennessee and building-out the follow vehicle.

The HOS typically does not have a large field (possibly due to the early season date), but the course is very difficult. The route covers 517 miles and includes 36,000 feet of climbing. As if that were not enough, the race organizers set up the course so that the steepest and most difficult climbing does not come until after the riders have covered over 400 miles. I guess they figured if your legs were fresh when you hit the toughest climbs, then it wouldn’t be challenging enough!

I’ve done a fair amount of long-distance riding over the years, but I’ve never really "raced", so I had a bit of anxiety before the start about how things would go. Mark took on the task of developing a riding schedule which would capitalize on each of our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. I was particularly appreciative of the fact that Mark scheduled me to both start the race (which allowed me to settle down quickly and get comfortable in the race format) and to finish the race (which was a real treat, as I’ll explain later).

The solo riders started four hours ahead of the teams and we selected the last of the staggered start times for the teams. Although this meant that we were the last team to start, it felt much better to be chasing other riders than it would have been to be the one being chased. For the first half of the race, we maintained a good pace, but stayed well within our comfort zone. At the 240 mile point, we hit the first significant climb, which is a 7 mile climb rising over 2000 feet to the top of Fort Mountain. We broke the climb up into four sections, doing rider exchanges every two miles. We passed a number of riders and looked to be clear of the field when we went over the top. For the next several hours, I kept expecting the two-man team on fully-faired recumbents or the four-man teams to come flying by, but they never appeared.

At about the 420 mile point we hit the Cheaha Scenic Byway, which has a number of very steep climbs (and descents), as well as one particularly long final climb to the summit. This represents the toughest climbing of the race, and our plan was that I would ride the first half and that Mark would ride the second half. Our one strategic misstep during the race was on this climb, where we missed the planned rider exchange point and did not realize our mistake until I had reached the summit. It was the one time during the race where I felt like my power was beginning to drop and that I might be working too hard.

A few hours later we were nearing the end of the race. But with about 20 miles left to the finish, the race organizers put in two final climbs. Although those two climbs represent only three miles of climbing, they also contain nearly 1000 feet of elevation gain, and I was not looking forward to them. Luckily for me, Mark took on both of those climbs and then turned it over to me for the final run into the finish.

Now when Mark had asked me a few weeks earlier what kind of a finish time I was shooting for, I blurted out "around 30 hours" (a nice round number), thinking that a 17.3 mph average shouldn’t be too difficult to maintain. What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time was just how much 36,000 feet of climbing can slow a rider down. Shortly before the race started, I realized that the course record for a two-man team was 33 hours and 20 minutes. Oops! It was beginning to look like my mouth had written a check that my legs might not be able to cash.

As the ride progressed, I kept running the numbers in my head and I started thinking that maybe, just maybe, we could sneak in under 30 hours. Shortly after Mark turned the riding over to me for the final run into the finish I asked the crew over the radio how many miles we had to go and how many minutes there were until the 30 hour point. The crew replied that there were over 14 miles to go, that we had only 38 minutes . . . and that we would have to average 23 miles an hour to make it.

Now maintaining a 23 mph pace over rolling terrain at the end of a 517 mile race didn’t seem likely, and there was some discussion that it would probably be best to just go easy. But I kept thinking that we came here to race, and it seemed like we might as well go for it . Nothing hurt, and it certainly didn’t seem like I was going to "blow-up" on a 14 mile effort, so I started to pick up the pace. The next half-hour was really enjoyable, although in a slightly masochistic sort of way. It was one of those rare times on the bike when you welcome the hurt. The closer we got to the finish, the more encouraging the crew became and when we came through the final turn and rolled into the finish we had done it! 29 hours and 58 minutes. It felt good. I mean it really felt good!

We had thought that at least one team and some solo riders were still ahead of us, so when the race organizer came over and said that we were "first", we were not quite sure what he meant. Mark said "so we’re the first two-man team"? The race organizer repeated "you’re first". Mark looked at him again and said "you mean we’re the first team to finish"? The race organizer apparently decided that he would need to make things a little clearer for us. He said, "I have been here at the finish for hours. No one else has finished yet. You are the first to finish". It was quite a surprise. I certainly hadn't expected to finish ahead of the four-man teams, and setting a new two-man team record (by more than 3 hours) was the icing on the cake.

All in all, it was a great experience. I really enjoyed training with Mark in Tennessee and riding with him in the HOS. Our crew (Don Magie and John Welsh) did a great job and were always there when we needed them. I can’t imagine a better outcome for my first real "race", and I am now more excited than ever about the opportunity to race with Richard in RAAM this June.