Calvin’s Challenge brings the first road race of the season
Several months ago, emails started circulating, AM drafted a Google doc spreadsheet, and the team started talking 2013 races. I had my eye on trying an early season endurance race, and had heard Calvin’s Challenge might be a good one to ride. A mere 4 hour drive away, it seemed possible to sandwich this in on marathon weekend. When I casually threw it out there to the team, Ryanne emailed back to say she was in, and what about racing the 12-hour race? Given our duties on marathon weekend, we decided on 6h this time.
After our turn at the Marathon Expo, we housed a couple of frozen burritos and loaded up Ryo’s car to head to Springfield, Ohio. Thanks again to Ryo for driving! During our car ride I distinctly remember our conversation about the race. Side note: if you could be unprepared for a race, I sure felt that way about this one. Not necessarily training-wise. With Winter Training base from Cycling Fusion, and having worked a bit with my coach, Jim, on power the past month, I thought my goal of a century in 6 hours was in my reach. But this was like no other race I had ever ridden. I’ve been racing for years, and know about criteriums, road races, time trials, etc. I also had ridden many consecutive hours on the bike, but the last nearly 6-hour ride was in Tucson in February 2012. However, this was my first time-based endurance road race – the first dip of one’s toes into the water of ultracycling. Riding on it (pun intended) was making sure I could mentally and physically take spending 6 hours on the bike (which is what we’ll be spending – albeit divided up – daily for ~8 days straight in 2014.) I was excited about this and a little nervous at the same time, but with work had not had time to really research the particulars of the race. So Ryo summarized her race report recon and our conversation went something like:
R – “PG did you see the elevation gain?”
me – “No. Is it flat?”
R – “I don’t know if I read it right, but what they call a ‘hill’ doesn’t seem very much like a hill.”
me – [Squinting at the course profile on the website] “Does that say 200 feet per lap?”
We were not sure, but started feeling a bit overly confident about the flatness of this race. We were from Western PA, after all, a region known for its hills…
Ryo also mentioned that the secret, from what she had read, was to get in a fast group and pace with them. In this race you are allowed to draft (meaning work with other riders to take turns staying out of the wind in each other’s slipstream). Noted.
We checked into the hotel late with alarms set for 6AM to allow enough time to eat a real breakfast and get our gear before the 8:30AM start.
The next day we fueled up, packed up, and got to the start location, unpacked the bikes, and got ready to race. What I didn’t really realize when I quickly packed on a 70 degree day in Pittsburgh, was that 4 hours away at 8:30AM it may not be 70 degrees. Nope, I did not look at the weather widget on my iPhone. So no layers – no leg warmers, arm warmers, or even long sleeves. Thank goodness Ryo leant me her extra jacket. Teeth chattering we rolled up to the starting line. (Remember that part about feeling unprepared? It had been awhile since I’d packed for a road trip to a race, but still.)
Calvin’s Challenge is a race consisting of a 50-mile loop and a 7-mile loop. All the racers do a 50-mile loop, and then if they arrive after a certain time point, the 7-mile loop is opened up, and they continue to do as many 7-mile loops as they can until time is called. The loops circle through the start/finish where there is space to drop your gear, extra food, as well as staffed food and water station. The terrain is rather flat with some rolling hills, but pretty minimal. But what you don’t realize from an elevation profile on a map is that Springfield, Ohio has this element called “wind.”
There was minimal announcements from the race director at the beginning. I remember him saying there would be a lead vehicle for the first 5 miles of the 50-mile loop. In my mind I processed it as a “neutral start” – this is in bike racing where people start but don’t race until given a signal. I even told Ryo that seemed a bit long.
They counted down and we were given the signal to start and the fast guys took off like bats out of you-know-where. Holy smokes – it was not a neutral start. No way! Going from teeth-chattering standing still to sprinting. Ryo was all over it, and got into the lead group right at the start. I was clinging for dear life, trying to make up distance I missed with my lackadaisical clip-in. Also, to be certain, as soon as I fell out of another rider’s slipstream it was like hitting a WALL of headwind. You work twice as hard and don’t go nearly as fast. I clung for dear life, coughing and literally sputtering in the cold air, and the teeth chattering was gone in the matter of a minute. I shed Ryo’s coat at mile 5 and settled in behind Dustin, a nice guys from North West, PA. We saw the leaders up ahead, and worked for awhile to catch up to them, taking turns. I knew Ryo was way ahead, but saw the second place woman in my sights. She was out in the wind (expending more energy) a lot, so I worked with Dustin, and reminded myself that there were hours left in this race.
A little bit later, a young guy in a Latexco jersey pulled up by us and was super strong, trying to bridge the gap between us and the riders ahead, so I got on his wheel and signaled to Dustin, but he dropped back. I was working to keep up with this young guy, but knew that if I popped, I’d be in the wind solo, which was worse than breathing hard to stay in his slipstream. The wind was so powerful. We took turns, but honestly, he did a ton of the pulling. He was that strong. We caught the woman and a fast tandem team and worked with them awhile. We all worked together, sometimes surging for a break, sometimes sticking together.
Then all through the 50-mile loop we kept picking off stragglers, some would ride with us awhile, then drop off. Then we met up with this guy in a neon green coat and now my buddy in the Latexco jersey started to fatigue. He said to me, “I’m going to drop back with the slower people.” I was shocked. “Aw, are you sure?” I said. He hung in there for awhile, but eventually dropped back. To be certain the wind was crazy hard, and most of the course felt like you were getting hit straight in the face. Wind, unlike hills, picks no favorites. If you’re light and strong, you have a good power-to-weight ratio and can climb better than someone a bit heavier. However, the wind, it hits everyone the same, and those who can hunker down and work with someone, or get a low and aerodynamic as possible, will have an advantage. Our bikes – Cervelo S5 Team bikes – are made for this purpose. While people think of RAAM and mountains, the truth is the majority of it will be flat and in the wind, so aero is key.
So now it was me and neon guy, and all I could think was “Uh oh, what if I can’t keep on his wheel? This guy is super strong. I might get popped.” But I soon put that out of my head, because it didn’t get me anywhere, and stuck on his wheel. And then we started talking. Turns out his name is David Meridith, a math teacher from Wisconsin, and had done Calvin’s Challenge many years before (the 12-hour race). He also had raced RAAM in 1990 – when it was in AUGUST and traversed a Southern route (HOT), and finished – solo. No wonder he was so STRONG. He loved endurance racing, and was working towards the Michagan 24-hour race this summer. He had done Calvin’s and many ultracycling events in the past. Super nice quy, pedaling strong while able to keep conversation – he was super fit.
When he asked me, “What about you? Are you doing RAAM?” I told him about Team PHenomenal Hope. I told him we were racing for people who struggle to breathe, talked about high blood pressure in the lungs, and how there are treatments but no cure. Dave was super nice, and genuinely interested. We chatted back and forth about RAAM. Note: I consistently find that most RAAM and ultraendurance folks often seem to be really interesting people. There is something in their DNA to push their bodies to extremes on a race course or ride, yet be super nice, personality-wise.
We got through the first 3 hours with 58 miles under our belt, circled into the school, and started on the 7-mile loops. I was getting low on water, but knew I had enough for one lap and didn’t want to lose Dave’s wheel (did this guy even drink? Hardly as much as I was, so I knew he would not stop). The second lap I was dry, and needed to refill. It put me 30-45 seconds off his wheel, so I worked hard for 3 miles and caught him. Yes. We rode together for a couple more laps. Then after I refueled again, I did finally lose him for good. The rest of the race I was on my own. So gun it I would, and get aero I would. The secret was making through the first 2.25 miles of wind and then the last 1 mile of complete gut-busting, soul-wrenching headwind. The middle section was a dream, where you could put in a normal effort but cruise at 24-26 mph with a tailwind.
At 5h 22m I hit 100 miles, and was stoked. Mission accomplished. Now onto goal number 2 – could I break the record in my age group for women at this event (107 miles). As I rode I did these calculations in my head: Think so. I also started to take stock of various parts of my body that were “talking to me” from my upper back and neck to my legs and seat. But these thoughts could be out-thought and feelings could be overcome. You acknowledge and move on. Mindfulness on the bike? Definitely. Present moment. One mile marker at a time. The last lap came and I went for it. I knew if I could get to the tailwind section of sweetness I’d be golden. At 6 hours I was rolling back into the school with 111 miles under my belt, more than satisfied after a grueling race in incredible Midwestern headwinds.
I pedaled around the parking lot super slowly on my bike, standing and stretching the legs, and circled at the finish, waiting for Ry. She came in with 118 under her belt – A new record in her age group, and the most for the 6-hour women that day (and 5th place overall out of 56 finishers)! And then all we could think of was getting off the bikes and getting food. And lying down in the grass.
One of the neatest parts of this event was meeting some really cool folks before and after the race. And many of them had RAAM experience. Our parking lot neighbor, Kevin, crewed for a record-setting men’s team. His friend crewed for that team and a record-setting women’s team from last year. We exchanged information, and I look forward to talking to them in the future, and hopefully seeing them on the bike again as well. Super nice folks. One of the guys in Ryo’s group of wind-fighting friends talked about doing RAAM. It just seems to come up at events like this. Pretty cool.
So this type of endurance race was a completely new experience, and man the endorphins, elation and exhaustion afterwards – priceless. There is nothing like leaving it all out there on the course. I look forward to the next event. And Calvin’s – you’ll see me back next year. Afterall, I now have a personal best there to beat.