Thursday, April 28, 2016

Miles and Miles to Go: training for the Dirty Kanza

10 miles into the Dirty Kanza, photo by Eric Benjamin
This year I will start my 4th Dirty Kanza 200 in a row. The race for me is something of an oddity. I do not race any other Mid-West gravel grinders since I live in New England. I do not race other ultra endurance mountain bike or brevet events, though I am tempted. The Kanza has a special place in my heart because of it's location and the spectacular organization. If I could only enter one race a year the Dirty Kanza would be my choice.

It is no small thing to prepare for the Dirty Kanza. My dedicated Kanza training plan starts 13 weeks before the race and averages 13 hours of saddle time a week.  I ride 300 miles in my high volume weeks. I'd love to ride more, but family & business obligations precludes it. Everyone lining up has different strengths to rely on during the course. Everyone also has different weaknesses to overcome. Your challenges will likely be different than my own. This is an outline of the types of training I've found important to a successful Kanza.

My base training starts in January. I use skiing and hiking in the winter for base endurance work. This year warm dry winter weather allowed me a few 3 hour bike rides too. Most years I have under 1000 miles cycling before March, but plenty of training volume in other aerobic sports. While miles/volume is necessary it will not get me through the Kanza alone. Each year I've looked to improve my training by incorporating means of overcoming my setbacks from the prior race.

rolling out on Commercial Street, Emporia

Speed & Tempo Work: The start of the Dirty Kanza is fast. The last two years the front group was doing 25 mph+ on gravel in the first 20 miles. Staying up with the leaders early on has risks, but it also saves energy to ride in the shelter of the bunch. The longer I can comfortably follow a wheel in the lead group, the closer I am to the finish. Sticking with the leaders requires both comfort with pack racing and the speed to stay in the group. Since I don't get many race starts ahead of the Kanza, I practice on group rides. Following close to a lead rider's wheel at a quick pace approximates road racing. Tempo work is important for the long stretches of the race when I will be alone or with only a few others. I must be able to go hard deep into the race to be able to finish fast. Even on 8+ hour endurance rides I try to do 30 minute tempo blocks in the last 2 hours.

Headwind Riding: Kanza means "people of the south wind". While the wind may come from any direction on race day, it is a consistent force. Riding for hours into a steady 15 mph headwind must be expected. The only way to get familiar with pushing hard into a strong headwind is to seek it out. In New England it is easy to find sheltered roads or forest single track on high wind days. But when I'm training for the Kanza, I do tempo blocks charging straight into stiff headwinds. I practice changing gears to maximize my power when the breeze goes slack. I adjust my body position to reduce my wind sheer. Frankly climbing hills is easier to learn, but strong winds are bigger factor at the Kanza.

Descending one of the many hills at DK200
photo by the Emporia Gazette

Climbs: That is not to say that the Kanza course lacks hills. With a total of 10,000+ feet elevation gain there are plenty. But the inclines in Chase & Lyon Co. Kansas are not long by New England standards. All but a few are less than a mile. The longest is barely 4 miles consistent grade. Yet some of the hills have spot grades at 15% or more. When you tackle one of those with 170 miles already in your legs it does not mater much that the climb is only a half mile long. Training for these grades requires doing short steep hill intervals after I am already fatigued. I try to include some climbing in the last hour of my endurance rides and after I have finished a fast group ride. I also practice climbing on loose gravel when I have a chance.

Descents: What goes up must come down. The descents on the back of these short steep climbs are regularly rocky & loose. Pick the wrong line and your tires are toast. Dive deep into the thick gravel and you'll likely kiss the ground. Either result can be a quick way to end your day. On the other hand if I can descend assuredly then I earn "free speed". Actually it is the speed earned from hard gained experience. I use stretches of rocky steep jeep trails to practice my descending skills each week in the months before the Kanza.

Eating on the Bike: Consuming enough calories during a 12-15 hour bike race is not easy. Practicing it correctly is not easy either. The first factor is what to eat? Everyone has different preferences. I can not live on sport drinks & gels alone. But solid foods can be difficult to chew & swallow while pushing tempo too. I find that soft bars, dried fruit, & yogurt in squeeze tubes are the best alternatives to gels. How much & how often to eat are also critical decisions. Personally I try to eat 100 calories every 30 minutes, typically one gel & one alternative food an hour. I top off at the 2nd & 3rd checkpoints with some whole foods. But I learned the hard way a couple of years ago that stuffing yourself at a checkpoint only leads to belly cramps & dead legs.

eating on the bike old school style

As important as what to eat & how often, is HOW to eat. I never want to come to a stop while on course. Indeed I don't want to even slow down to eat. But it does take some focus off pedaling hard to get any food into my mouth. So I practice eating gels & bars while in the middle of  group rides. I concentrate on maintaining a steady position in the bunch while taking in needed food. Yuri Hauswald is of course the GUru of eating a gel on the bike.

Mental Toughness It's not a matter of if you'll want to quit the Kanza it's only a question of when & how you'll deal with it. Even the fastest & most accomplished racers have moments when they want to tap out. But as Rebecca Rusch says about racing ultra events "there will be good times, there will be bad times, neither will last". Racing the Kanza has required me to build mentally toughness like no other event I've done. I think there are 3 parts of that mental toughness: confidence, resilience, & adaptability.

I take confidence in my training & organizing for the race. I know that I have a plan to show up in Emporia prepared. My mantra in the days leading up to the start is the Little Engine that Could "I think I can, I think I can". Resilience means regaining that confidence when assaulted by doubt during the race. The Kanza is hard. I have faced dehydration, leg cramps, belly cramps, darkness, fatigue, & frustrations too numerous to list. Any of them will cause serious self doubt while on the course. Resilience is the mental process that brings me to where I can keep going & believe it can get better, regardless of how slowly I'm pedaling. My mantra when in doubt is a variation on Dory in Finding Nemo "Just keep Spinning". Adaptability is a little different. Physical issues stop many on the Kanza route, but mechanical or weather issues stop as many. I must be prepared to fix anything that breaks on my bike to keep pedaling. I must be able to adapt to whatever the weather brings and ride through it. Finishing the Kanza can be as much about problem solving these challenges as riding a bike. Positive mental attitude facing either physical, mechanical or environmental challenges is key to enjoying the ride.

Finishing the Kanza in the dark is always a possibility

Rest: While training hard is important to prepare for the Kanza, so is the opposite, rest. Enough rest is critical to complete a training plan, both for volume & intensity. In short, I must start my recovery from a hard training session as soon as it ends so that I will be fresh enough to complete the next workout. As important as daily recovery, so are the rest weeks in the training plan. After 3 weeks of  hard training in a row, I need a week of easy riding to consolidate my fitness gains. Adequate rest includes enough sleep, full hydration, good nutrition, and stretching. My rest weeks include 4 days of easy miles and 2 days of short high intensity efforts to keep my aerobic capacity. After a proper rest week I'm ready to attack the next training block. My week going into race day is similar to my rest week: emphasize sleep, hydration, good nutrition & stretching or massage. I ride every day, but limit the intensity to enough effort to open up the lungs/legs.

As I noted earlier, these 5 areas address my training challenges, yours may be different. I hope these serve as good reminders or helpful tips to prepare for the Dirty Kanza. I trust we will have a great ride to Emporia

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Rasputitsa 2016: Same As it Ever Was

you may find yourself in another part of the world

It's hard to believe that the Rasputitsa has been held for only 3 years. It seems like longer, like it is the classic it's meant to be. So the night before in the midst of my race prep stress I fixated on the 35 year old Talking Heads single, Once In a Lifetime. Thinking on it now, it's fitting that a song from the dawn of MTV and the last decade of the Cold War would be my earworm for the event: Same As It Ever Was....

But I digress. The route this year would be the exact same as last year, but under polar opposite conditions. In 2015 we faced freezing temperatures, a gray sky, &a forced march on 5km of snowmobile trail over Kirby Mountain which the promoter deemed "Cyberia". This year it was sunny, mostly dry, & everything was rideable, at least with some courage on the descents. But a dry course was not an easier course, no sir. I should not choose this event for my first race of the year. I climb long hills like a bowling ball, and this course has 3 extended climbs. But the event draws many of my cycling friends from around New England. It is like the NECX pre-pre-season opener, so how can I resist? Moths to a flame...

Last year I made two critical mistakes: first I brought a hardtail 29er thinking that I could ride the snowmobile trail with it (I couldn't) & that it would be as fast on the packed dirt roads as a cyclocross bike (it wasn't). Second, that I could hold the pace of the lead group over the first large climb. I did o.k. on the first few rollers heading toward Burke Hollow, but as the dirt climbs got steeper I popped out of the bunch hard. I recall Tim Shea yelling at me "That's not a sustainable pace Carl!" as I went backwards.

rolling out of East Burke. photo by Ralph Samson
This year I resigned myself to starting outside the lead group. Though foolish pride compelled me to line up behind Don Seib & next to David Gray. Seib told me that he was going to ride a "social pace", of course his social pace puts most of us deep into the red zone. Sure enough when we rolled out Don & his son made their way up to the front of the chase group. I followed feeling comfortable with their tempo. After the first few rollers we began to pick up stragglers from the lead group. I bridged across to Ellen Noble and gave her a shoulder tap hello. Following her down a washboard section my water bottles both ejected. 3 miles in, 14 miles to the feed zone with no water on a warm day was not a good start, not good at all.

I tried to throttled back my effort on the first long climb to avoid getting dehydrated, but it's not easy to go easy when your friends are racing past. I quickly forgot self preservation and pushed into high tempo pace. The group fragmented up the Burke Hollow climb. A few guys came past me then some would fall back again. Racing down the descent gave me some relief from thinking about my lack of water. David Gray & I played leap frog on the bottom of the Victory Road climb. I hoped he would catch me before long so I could beg a bottle from him. But he caught me closer to the top and he was down to one bottle as well. Finally I crested Victory Road. I slowed to grab 2 bottles at the feed zone, gulped half of one down, and started the plunge to Granby. Two big climbs over, one to go, Cyberia.
in the bunch on River Road: photo by Ralph Samson
The only flat section of the course is 6 miles of River Road to Masten hill. Since I had backed off the pace of the chase group in order to drink & eat I was riding alone. This is the one place on the course that drafting is an advantage. I did catch one racer a couple miles onto River Road. We traded pulls for a while, but not going all out. With about a mile left before Masten Road a group of 8 caught us. The group included some familiar faces like Julie Wright, Colin Johannen and Charlie Boudrages. I took a pull then shuffled to the back to eat before the crux climb. I have a bad habit of starting long climbs at the back of a group. Whether I back down due to lack of confidence in my climbing or to create an incentive to chase I don't know, but it's not a useful tendency.

I was feeling good since I got some food & water into my system. The group quickly splintered with each climbing their own pace. I was able to pick off 5 racers and saw the remaining 4 ahead as we turned onto Cyberia proper. The jeep trail was mostly hard pack on the climb, though occasionally we'd plow through a power sucking wet patch. We reached a false flat 3+ miles up and I surged around the remainder of the bunch. I wanted to start the descent in front of the group. I had forgotten about the last steep section of jeep trail. Catching sight of it I was demoralized. The 3 people I had just passed came by me again with a few more in tow including Charlie. I clung to his wheel as we worked past a couple of others up the final pitch of Cyberia. At the very top I downed a maple syrup hand up & readied for a tricky descent. Peter Vollers & The Rowells had warned that the Cyberia descent would be dicey. The jeep track was severely rutted, muddy, & rock strewn. This section is 1.2 miles long at an average 9% decline but thankfully fairly straight. Charlie came around me as we bombed down it. He slowed catching up to another racer so I popped over into the opposite rut. I took my chances letting my speed go down the track & hopping a few water bars. It was WooHoo factor 11.
Charlie & I pick our lines down Cyberia. photo by Meg Boucher
Someday I'll stop at the Rowell Family tent for a homemade donut at the end of the jeep trail. They look delicious. But this was not that day. I continued a quick descent on the Victory Mtn. Road in pursuit of the faster climbers. The best section of the course for me is the rollers on the final 6 miles. The short punchy grades are good for a sprinter like me to chase down fading front runners. I thought I had lost Charlie, but no. He is like the grizzly bear of NECX. The myth is that grizzlies can't climb, but indeed they can, and a guy his size should not be able to climb so well, but indeed he does. As I started up the first hill on Ridge Road, Charlie came roaring past. I pushed to regain his wheel. We caught then passed Colin Johannen & Julie Wright as we pounded tempo over the rollers. I made a hard attack on the false flat before the turn onto Brook Road. But half way down the descent Charlie zoomed past me again. There was only one thing left to do...    
As we turned onto Mt. Hunger Road, Charlie had a 6-7 second lead. I had a mile to try to claw him back before the turn onto the final chute. But he was clearly not holding anything back. I hammered the pedals to catch him on this last rise. 100 meters before the turn he caught 2 other guys and sat up. I was able to close on them with 50 meters to the chute. I wanted to be first into the final plunge, but could only get around Charlie and one of the other two. I had the line I wanted down the rocky chute, but was on the wide side of the turn coming around the East Burke store. Sand on the pavement forced me to slow to avoid sliding out. With 100 meters left I stomped on the pedals, but the guy who had the inside line sprinted clear. I held off Charlie at the line. Racing him for the last 10 miles was an all out effort. It was a glorious battle, comrades, for 33rd place. 

Michelle Roy & Karen Nash enjoying the hang outs. photo by Pete Hurt
The true reason for coming up to this brutal course is the cycling camaraderie. The racing is good, especially mixing it up with people who are outside my normal "old guys" category. But the hanging out is as good or better. Right after the finish I was chatting with John Moser & Don Seib who finished a few minutes ahead. My team mate Jordan finished just a bit later. We waited for his wife Ryanne to come across the line before going on a cool down ride together. I always would rather spin out the legs with team mates than alone, so we brought Kat Zalenski & her fella along too. The food & socializing at the Rasputitsa is the best. No other race I've been to has recovery poutine, it's worth every painful climb. The sun warmed faces and soothed our aching legs as I shared a beer outside with my team mates. Anthony & Heidi have created a very special event in 3 short years. I trust we'll get to do it again every April for a longtime to come.
The JAM Fund kids & their mentor Al Donahue

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Bike Season is Dead! Long Live the Bike Season!

Last year was a hard one for me on the bike. Or more accurately, injuring myself off the bike. I still had plenty of good rides & accomplished my top goal, finishing the Dirty Kanza 200. Looking back it was a year of 2 seasons, everything leading up to the Dirty Kanza, and my falling apart afterward. I kept trying to make something of wounded form, but at some point one has to say enough.

This time last year I was looking at mounds of snow & wondering how I was going to get in shape for the Kanza. I was fortunate that I was healthy, the prior two years I had injuries & illness that curtailed my training. But an above average snow year meant the skiing was good until April and the cycling, not so much. I could just build endurance in 6-7 weeks but I also wanted power too.

A few races before the Kanza would help up my power. So I raced the Rasputitsa for training & hanging out. The weather leading up to race day had me question bringing a cyclocross bike. I decided to run my 29er hardtail with 1.9" tires. Mistake #1, never bring a machete to a knife fight. The 29er was not only heavier, but it didn't roll as fast on hard pack dirt roads as the cyclocross bikes. The 3 mile hike a bike on Cyberia was "special" too. Still the NECX bike party in Burke afterward that is not to be missed. I also raced Krank the Kanc again, as part of a team time trial, again. And we came in 3rd, again.

But no amount of fitness could prepare anyone for the conditions at the Dirty Kanza last year. The mud was a soul crushing bike destroying monster. Although the un-rideable stretches totaled 6 miles, they made race much much harder. Everyone was slowed by a couple of hours. I avoided the hamstring cramps that plagued me in the past, but my tender left knee ached on the heavy muddy terrain. Still, I finished, and in not too poor of a placing. I was thrilled just to be one of the finishers.
With all the fitness & mental fortitude I built for the Kanza I was excited for mtb racing the rest of the summer & a great cyclocross season. But the best laid plans...

happy just to have finished DK200
Exactly two weeks after the Kanza I took my son & his mtb buddies for a long ride on the local trails. The big attraction was a new flow trail in Fox Park. After a couple of hours of riding the old familiar single track they were ready & amped to hit the berms on the new trail. We got to the top of the flow trail & the kids hollered as they started off. As excited as they were, I hopped to mount up on my bike, and stepped into a 4" deep hole covered with freshly raked off loam. I fell full weight over my turned ankle & crumpled to the ground. By the time I soft pedaled to the parking lot my ankle was the size of a grapefruit. A few days later 4 toes on that foot were purple. I have suffered ankle sprains before, I played soccer through college, but never as bad as this one.

The rest of the summer was a contest of patience. I patiently iced & elevated my ankle. I patiently stretched & slowly strengthened my healing ligaments. I carefully applied physio tape on my ankle before each ride, then just before hard rides, then only before races. I reminded myself to wear compression socks every day to further reduce the swelling. I patiently waited for the chiropractor to finish dry needling my left leg to further the healing.
Slowly I was able to ride tempo again, then race a little, then sprint once a ride. Yet I could feel the imbalance in my pedal stroke due to the lingering pain in my left ankle. I raced the Boston Rebellion XC, for pride if nothing else. I limped for 3 days afterward. My plans of racing for the summer were scrapped. I enjoyed some big rides including the IRR & Overland GP, but with clear limits on my form. By August I could jog short distances, but not really run with out an ankle brace. How was I going to race cyclocross at all? My chiropractor (whose 3 daughter's college tuition are covered on my appointments alone) encouraged me to stay patient, keep doing the hard work of building my strength back gradually, let my body heal at it's pace.

The first few weeks of the cyclocross season were as hard psychologically as physically. I carefully taped my ankle before every race. I was able to compete without limping (too much), but my level was not where it was a year before. I was racing at 90% at most. I had to adjust my goals for October, race for fun, & keep rebuilding my fitness. Still I would rather race at some level than sit on the couch and mope. Each week I felt like I was getting a little closer to fit.
My results began to show my slow progress. I had good races at Hanover CX & Keene to finish a few spots off the podium. I was only a minute behind where I wanted to be. Everything seemed to be coming together when I Putney I was able to finish 5th in a stacked masters 45+ group. I was feeling at the level of fitness I had hoped for coming into November. Then on my warm up "hot lap" before day 1 at Northampton CX near the top of the run up I felt a sharp pop in my left calf. I yelled as if I had been hit by a fist sized rock. I could barely limp off course. I had torn my calf muscle. Since it was my left leg, I couldn't remount my bike easily. Season over, thanks for playing.
finding my groove at last Putney CX
This was not the first injury that ended my cyclocross season early. Ironically it was a huge hematoma on my other calf (from being run over in a sand pit) that ended my season the year before. In 2014 my season was over before it started due to a severe hamstring pull. Then there was the year that I dislocated my left knee at the second cyclocross race of the year. Three years later I pulled the plug at Putney Westhill since the chronic pain in that knee meant cortisone no longer worked and it was time for surgery. When it comes to managing injuries this was not my first rodeo.

Why keep at it? Why work to put myself back together each year just to race bikes at a more compromised level? I know plenty of cyclists who've retired from racing after fewer or lesser injuries. Or have transitioned to other sports after a difficult recovery from injury. I certainly have asked myself whether I can continue to race with the accumulated nagging aches. Yet each winter I plot out another year of training focused on the bike racing season ahead.

The simple answer is that my life is better with bike racing than without it. My time & energy are better focused when I have a goal to train for and a plan to train. I'm certain I could "ride for fun" but I'd then spend much more time sitting on the couch & drinking beer, which would make riding less fun.

The other factor is that my falling apart body is part of life. Most everyone accumulates knocks that no longer heal perfectly as we age. Our grace is defined by how we deal with those new challenges, how we learn to work with them, how we take better care of ourselves than we needed to in younger years. While I may injure myself more regularly by racing bikes, I also keep myself strong & limber to avoid other possible injuries. I race bikes not so much to "stay young" as to age (& live) better. SO here is to the next 25 years of bike racing (God willing)