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Monday, September 12, 2016

Hurt, Agony, Pain, Love It: Bike MS Ozarks 2016

I'm the kind of dork who logs all his bike miles religiously. I have a spreadsheet going back to 2009, I track mileage, average speed, max speed, time in the saddle, with breakdowns by month and year, as well as tracking when I replace components so I know how many miles I'm getting out of chains, tires, cassettes, and so forth.

But this year I haven't been the kind of dork who bikes a lot. 104.4 miles in May, 290.12 in June (that's below target but more like it), then only 102.6 in July and 172.9 in August. Some of this has been because of illness, mainly related to my CPAP machine. Since I turned up the pressure on it and got more focused on making sure I have a good seal on the nose pillows I seem to be doing better, but there have been some stretches this year where I just felt like crap a lot of days. Sometimes this was probably just a lack of quality sleep, other times I think the lack of sleep left me vulnerable to bonafide illness. Add to that getting busy with election stuff at work in July and some laziness and the next thing you know it's time to ride 150+ hilly Ozark miles and I'm out of shape.

I worried about bursitis in my knees most actually, because when I've ridden a full round trip to work lately that's what seems to flare up. But that wasn't a problem at all this weekend. Lack of conditioning, though, yeah.

We started from Republic, Missouri in a light rain that yielded to some epic headwinds. But it cleared pretty early and the weather was pretty much gorgeous the rest of the weekend (though until that rain dried off the body, that 20+ mph headwind was sure chilling).

The best heckle I ever got was on a Bike MS years ago, on the Century Loop at about mile 96 I think, a car passed me and called out, 'You're in last place!' I had to laugh because it felt true, and actually that gave me a bit of a second wind, just laughing in my misery.

I wasn't even aiming to make the Century Loop this year. I had my doubts if I"d make the 82 miles in to Joplin without getting in the SAG truck. I was far enough back in the pack I got to know a few first timers, people who bought bikes as recently as two weeks ago, people who had never ridden more than 40 miles at one go (same as my my first year). Some ended up SAGging, some toughed it out. There's certainly no shame in the SAG truck, that's what it's there for. You still raised money for the MS Society, when I got in the truck on day two of my first Bike MS all I felt was air conditioning and relief. Got to chat up a beautiful woman who threw it in a few minutes after I did.

I did want to finish though. It's not my first, and I am a little ashamed of letting myself get so out of shape that this was really hard to do. When I'm in good form, averaging 100 miles per week, Bike MS isn't that hard, and I come close to making the Century Loop (and generally intend to take it). I took a cue from my wife, who went to the Olympics, and composed a little affirmation to recite to myself when I had doubts. "I have grit. I don't quit. I'm doing this for fun." It was, at moments, a hard sell, but I kept at it because it was better than beating myself up for getting out of condition.

I thought I might be asked to SAG before it was over because the course officially is supposed to be clear at 5:00, and it was 5:39 when I rolled in to Joplin East. I was hurting but I had decided that unless I had more severe cramps than what I'd had (I had a few but they were pretty easy to stretch out), I wasn't going to quit unless they told me they needed to clear the course. If they told me they needed me to get in the truck so the volunteers could go home, I would comply. But I wasn't asking for a ride.

I had a rough night, really. Cramps right as I was falling asleep, again an hour later, couple hours after that. I think five times I was up out of bed in the gym, walking off the cramps, trying to get enough fluids and minerals in me to make them stop. Pickle juice, pepperoni pizza leftovers, water, chocolate milk, applesauce. Eventually on one of these sessions I got so full I ended up puking a bit, barely made it to the bathroom.

Grit or no, a night where you don't get to sleep more than an hour or two at a time between cramping and/or puking, that's enough to give one doubts about a Day Two. For real, I didn't even feel like starting. But I did, hoping that my muscles would warm up quickly and forgive me some.

Before that could happen, while fighting the rising sun, I rear-ended a cyclist who had stopped in the road. Because she couldn't see into the sun either. I was only going about five miles per hour, and I almost managed to swerve around her, it was a glancing blow at very low velocity. She went down, and when I apologized and asked if she was okay, she was like, 'it's okay, I can't see shit either.' I thought, but didn't say, then why did you stop in the road? But I was relieved that nobody was hurt. I jammed a toe a bit on something but it wasn't bleeding and the pain didn't last long.

My muscles did lighten up on me as I warmed up though. By the first rest stop I felt reasonably good, fatigued and sore but not as if I couldn't do this. I brought the affirmation back out, just to remind myself, and tried the Re:Play and Pre:Play samples a guy had pushed on me at the Day One lunch stop. Hard to say for sure, but it seemed like it helped more than the Squincher Zero I'd been guzzling. And I mean guzzling, I was doing about a half gallon of Squincher every ten to twelve miles, which is a challenge. I don't know if it was the time release caffeine in the Re:Play or if the combination of salts in it was just that much better, but I'm going to buy some of the stuff to experiment with.

As the day wore on I had more cramp twinges though. And after joking about being in last place with some volunteers who assured me there were riders behind me, I found myself riding the last few miles into the lunch stop with a SAG car driving very slowly behind me. I knew I was the last rider into lunch, and that was a little demoralizing. As was lunch: since I was the last, they were out of bread and had improvised to turkey/cheese 'wraps' which were slices of turkey wrapped around slices of cheese to make a turkey & cheese sandwich minus the bread. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad they don't spend a bunch of the money we fundraise on a catered lunch, but after struggling to make a bit over 40 miles, it's not an inspiring meal, especially if you don't much care for turkey as a lunch meat to begin with. I counted myself lucky they hadn't run out of bread with the ham on Saturday's lunch, ham being an even worse lunch meat in my opinion. If the towns these stops were in were big enough to have a Subway or something I'd just buy an alternative, but this is the Ozarks and if these towns had a place you could buy a meal at, they're not open Sunday.

A volunteer asked if any of us were thinking about getting a ride to Republic, and I kept quiet. A bunch of these riders had already passed me multiple times, they were taking longer breaks but were way faster than me. I decided to hop back on the bike and see if I could keep ahead of one or two of them until the next rest stop. I think I managed, I wasn't trailed by a SAG car the rest of Sunday.

Occasionally another rider would hang with me for a while, and those miles were the easiest. Conversation is a great distraction from personal discomfort and trying to keep up with someone who's faster than me but trying to let me keep up makes the miles go faster both psychologically and literally. But inevitably we'd get to a climb and my out of shape 275 lb person astride a 24 lb bike was just too slow for even a rookie rider who weighs 150 lbs riding a 20 lb bike.

Some of these kids were genuinely curious about my bike and getup. One was aspiring to do some touring, and was actually on a touring bike. The overall pack for this event is mostly on racing bikes, and thinks riding a heavy but comfortable steel frame such as my Long Haul Trucker is borderline on impossible. But compared to being folded in half aboard a jarring carbon fiber frame with tires that pinch flat in response to strong language, I don't see what's so hard about my Surly. I'm just out of shape.

I got to the fourth rest stop on the second day and admitted to the aspiring touring guy, I'm this close to SAGging. I'd been having more twinges, and just wasn't feeling it. He was like, are you cramping full out? Can you convince yourself you're still having fun? At which point I realized that I had been grinning even as I rode along alone with pauses to stretch out my cramping inner thighs.

And someone pointed out I could sag forward to the last rest stop and just ride the final ten or twelve miles, get to ride over the line. And I was like, no, if I quit I'm not restarting, once I cool off, I'm done. So I kept riding, past a goat in the road, then a pig. I thought the pig was a dog when I first spotted it peripherally, then he grunted and snorted and trotted out of the road. Which made me laugh, and that gave me a second wind.

I was doing a lot of half hearted affirmations past about 60 miles there. Every time I thought I had fallen to the last I was passed by someone, and when I got to the last rest stop my new friends were all there. But I kept on grinding. I guess it's kind of the same way I've finished century rides in the past, I just don't have enough sense to quit. And they do spare us a bit for the second day: we covered about 3,000 feet of elevation in 82 miles on the first day, more like 2,000 feet on 70 miles coming back.

That and the social interactions are like an amphetamine and analgesic to me. They really are. I'm pretty sure if someone slow enough to pace with me the whole way had ridden along with me, having a chat, I wouldn't even have thought about throwing it in.

I kept getting asked at rest stops, especially by the volunteers, 'What's the story behind that bike?' It's a little more decorated than the average Bike MS bike: as in it doesn't look like it just came off the showroom floor. At first I struggled to answer this. This bike, if you mean the frame, has over 12,000 miles on it. This saddle has closer to 20,000 miles, and a few bits and pieces are over 23,000. Lots of stuff has been replaced, frames have broken, wheels have worn out, derailleurs have been bent beyond recognition. That bike has been across Iowa, on tour into Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas, countless trips to and from work, Critical Mass, group rides, this is my fifth Bike MS. There isn't one story behind this bike, there's tons of stories behind this bike and many ahead of it I'm sure.

I already signed up for next year. I opted out of my birthday ride today, the ritual riding of a mile for every year I've been alive. After 152 miles with these out of shape legs, the last thing I needed was a 47 miler. I celebrated by driving to the movies, made it a double feature, saw Hell or High Water and Sully, played some Pokémon Go on the Plaza when I realized that walking slowly seemed to have some therapeutic value for my incredibly tender thighs, treated myself to a similarly therapeutic Cold Stone Creamery shake (Crème Brûlée and Butter Pecan, an excellent combination), and called it a day.

The way my legs feel I doubt if I'm even going to try to bike to work tomorrow. But at the same time, the way my legs feel, I'm going to spend a lot less time on the bus and in my car going forward. I'll be doing RAGBRAI next year and I'm already signed up for Bike MS again, and I don't want it to take all I have. It's much more fun when it's just a long bike ride.

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