Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Calvin's Challenge: Ride Report by Caroline

Here's another great write-up by our Western Correspondent, Caroline Atkins. Enjoy!

I don’t want to hear one daggum word about the so-called drought. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Yew kin put yer water-deficit reports AWAY. After correcting any possible dry conditions in Northwestern France last year, I have now personally contributed to replenishing the water table(s?) up and down the Eastern quarter of the USA, by simply showing up at bike events. My selfless action has insured that it has rained, primarily in deluge-fashion, for the majority of the weekends since, oh, let’s see . . . February.

The latest community to benefit from my gracious deeds is Springfield, OH, just north of Dayton.

Calvin’s Challenge is a 12-hour road race with a proud tradition of now 16 (I think) years. The race course consists of one 50-mile loop that riders complete as many times as possible within the allotted 12 hours, and a 7-mile loop that riders move to when there is no longer enough time to complete another 50-miler. The goal is to ride as many miles as possible in 12 hours.

Calvin’s has 3 basic rules: No whining, no cheating, and you must have some sort of rear-view mirror. The race also has a reputation for weather, especially wind. The course is 99% rural—farm fields that stretch as far as the eye can see, providing nothing to break the wind. The 2008 version definitely made up for the last several years of unusually mild conditions, which made adhering to the first rule especially challenging.

The first thing I did when I woke at 4:30 am was look out the window—at puddles that revealed both raindrops and ripples from being whipped by the wind. Super. The race began at 7:30 am, in rain and driving winds (20-30 mph). The course is a loop with a number of turns, insuring that the riders were pummeled on all sides by the wind. The tailwinds were extremely rare, and, as is their nature, were over with quickly when they did occur. It was immediately evident that this was not likely a day on which course records would be set.

Although drafting is allowed in Calvin’s Challenge, in my observation, most of the riders were spread out within 10-20 miles. Anyone who knows me knows how I feel about drafting events—yuck, icky, ptooey—give me an event where everyone pulls their own weight any day. In all honesty, with the wind coming from different directions every few miles, I didn’t find that drafting felt any easier, anyway. I would’ve needed a whole posse of domestiques scurrying around me—any takers?

Riding in these conditions definitely gives one a healthy dose of humility. After holding aspirations of averaging 17-18 mph (the course is flat to rolling), I found myself STRUGGLING, hunkered down in my aerobars, heart rate in zone 4, achieving 12 mph on a 0% grade, when I was lucky. On one of the blessedly rare inclines (dead into a headwind), I found myself in my easiest gear on a 4% grade, barely able to turn the pedals. Pitiful. Anyone who has ridden in the Midwest understands this sensation: there were plenty of times when the course took a 90-degree turn and I found myself performing a sweet track stand, directly into a blasting headwind. I wonder how long it will be before, in these litigious times, someone files a lawsuit against the WIND . . . loss of enjoyment of ambulating forward in an upright posture...

Years ago, while living in Boston, I had a housemate who was a Florida native. His fine Southern mother fretted that her son was living in a “Godless region,” so-described I assume for a number of reasons, weather included. I found myself thinking of her description frequently during this race. No offense to Ohioans, but why would anyone in their right mind CHOOSE to live in this place?

Now, I do have plenty of positive memories: There were some adorable llamas on the 50-mile loop, the lilacs were blooming and fragrant (before the blooms blew off the bushes), Ohioans are MUCH better at restraining their dogs than North Carolinians (or maybe the dogs had merely blown away), and MOST importantly, the race support was phenomenal! Even though I was riding alone much of the time, I never felt alone; support vehicles circulated constantly, emitting shouts of encouragement. At one point when the wind-driven rain was particularly epic, a Honda Element rolled by. One of the race organizers was standing up, head out of the open moon roof (in those conditions), APOLOGIZING to us for the weather! Our race numbers were laminated cards with a list of mileages (25, 50, 75, etc.) pinned to our backs. We were required to stop at checkpoints, where the volunteers would punch the respective mileage, proving that we had indeed ridden these miles. These folks were incredible. They stood out in the same elements we were exposed to, got us through QUICKLY, and gave a pat on the back and word of encouragement every single time.

I kept thinking, early in the race, “Well, this certainly can’t get any worse. Conditions will improve soon.” Wrong. The 30+ mph winds (CONSTANT winds; the gusts were stronger) continued and increased throughout the entire 12 hours! The flags weren’t just horizontal, they were reduced to tatters. The noise was deafening. The rain did stop for a period sometime during miles 25-50. Then, between miles 50 and 75, the black clouds on the horizon let loose with a vengeance. The combination of rain and wind was so fierce, it felt as if someone was aiming a fire hose straight into my ears. The rain actually HURT as it hurled itself against my face, and I don’t think it was hail. There’s something to be thankful for. No thunder and lightning, either, but I must admit, the thought of tornadoes crossed my mind more than once. The depth of standing water on the roads was remarkable in places, and I found myself wishing for a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang model bike—one that can fly AND navigate through water. The wet roads brought about my only near-wipeout. Approaching a 90-degree turn in the road, with some actual speed (one of the rare tailwinds), I reached for my brakes, which hadn’t been used in awhile (who needs brakes when the wind will bring you to a screeching stop if you simply cease pedaling?). The wet brakes/rims produced no effect. Holy $@#$ batman! I used every bit of the outside of the pavement of that corner, and was thankful for my grippy, 25C Continental tires (no, they’re not a sponsor).

Then the temperature started to drop. Given that I’m prone to hypothermia, I became concerned when I found myself shivering, and slurring my swear words. Remarkably, I had a fleeting moment of clear-headedness when I passed our support coolers (one filled with prepared water bottles, one with dry clothes) at mile 50. Something told me I should stick my Showers Pass (they don’t sponsor me, either) rain hood in a jersey pocket. Now was the time to use it! It felt TERRIFIC—blocked the rain out of my ears, quieted the wind noise, and brought my core temp up. Victories, no matter how small, can be SO gratifying!

Calvin’s has a FAITHFUL following, with a strong contingent of repeat customers. All ages are represented, as well as all classes of bicycles. In addition to the run-of-the-mill gorgeous road bikes, there were recumbents, tandems, and tandem recumbents. Even one of those back-to-back tandem recumbents: the riders sit back-to-back, one facing front, one facing back. In fact, I had several face-to-face conversations with the rear-facing gentleman (while riding). Reminds me of the two-headed llama in Dr. Doolittle—wasn’t that called a Push-me Pull-me? And there were HPVs racing, too (human powered vehicles). Close as I can figure, they’re some sort of recumbent with a shell that fits tightly around the rider. A rain shield! Anyway, they’re FAST, especially in the wind. Kinda like being passed by a giant yellow beetle.

About that mirror rule. The race course involves 36 turns, many of them lefts. Tragically, a Calvin’s racer was killed in the past while making a left turn (driver approaching from behind). Thus originated the mirror rule. I had some hesitation about the mirror issue, but settled on one that takes the place of my left bar end. I’m now a convert—it’s very helpful, saves me time in left turns, reveals stealth wheelsuckers, and I believe it ultimately conveys a certain respect for drivers, showing that I’m aware of and accounting for their presence. And the dork factor of this particular mirror is minimal!

The rain DID stop before I reached mile 100. The sun shone brightly, and the wind created conditions similar to what one experiences driving through the final step of an automatic car wash (the thunderous blow driers). The roads dried QUICKLY (except the potholes). Mercifully, I dried quickly, too. I took a porta-john break at mile 125, and as I was walking back towards the course, I looked at a bike on the ground and thought, in my fussy road biker mentality, “Man—that bike looks NASTY! Who rides a bike in THAT condition? Oh—it’s mine.”

I abandoned my goal of completing four 50-mile loops plus a couple 7-milers within the first 3 miles of the race. This was not to be a 200+ mile day (for me), but there was no reason not to try my hardest. Ultra-distance riding is all about adjusting one’s goals on a minute-by-minute basis, and making the best of it. I staggered through the 150-mile checkpoint and started riding the 7-mile loops. By now, the wind speed was increasing(!). There was a stretch on the 7-mile loop where we turned DIRECTLY into an air-compressor-like headwind. I could only laugh, and try to keep the bike upright at a blistering 8 mph on 0% grade. Hey—although I was passed by the beetlemobiles, I actually passed a few riders myself. I wasn’t the only one feeling rough.

I finished with 171 miles. I would’ve gone back out for another 7-mile loop to snag a few extra miles, but here’s the scenario I had to account for with my compromised reasoning (?) ability at that point: I finished a lap at 7:16 pm. The race ended at 7:30 pm. There were marshals at each mile marker out on the course, and I would’ve gotten my card punched at the last mile marker I passed within the 7:30 time limit. THEN, I had to get my card back to the start/finish line by 7:45, or I would get credit for NOTHING. And I had to ride the entire 7-mile loop to return to the start/finish line, even after the 7:30 race end. In other words, I couldn’t turn around and ride in reverse if that were closer. Given that my lap times were getting slower and slower, my asthma was rearing its ugly head, and the wind speed was getting higher and higher, I didn’t trust myself to get back in less than 30 minutes, especially accounting for some time to get my card punched. So, the actual total time spent with my butt on the saddle was 11:24 (12 hours less water bottle/potty/hole-punching breaks, plus ending 14 minutes early).

I hobbled back to the car, sputtering/mumbling something to Tony over the cell phone. Packing up was a real exercise in determination and patience in those wind conditions: open car doors resulted in a distribution of the contents of the car across the vast farm fields, until the car doors SLAMMED shut (luckily not on any body or bike parts), and bikes blew over as they patiently waited to be placed in a civilized environment after their day of toil. All I could do was watch in a stupor.

The awards ceremony was fantastic. The organizers made us all, even the newcomers, feel like family. They made it a point to announce a little something personal about each award-winner. I got to see ultra-distance riders who I have read about in awe for years. And there were several who will be RAAM (Race Across America) competitors in approximately one month. God bless ‘em. Surprisingly (and happily), I won a gold medal for the Women’s 45-49 age group. It’s always nice to bring some hardware home!

As we left Springfield the next morning, the sky was crystal-blue, with no wind. Just like the day after a hurricane.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the wonderful review of Calvin's. Yes...this year's conditions were pretty epic, but, according to historians, not the worst. Apparently year #1 saw these same hail! Nonetheless, I've been at almost all teh events...and have ridden many wet, windy miles at Calvin's...and have just learned to chuckle at the circumstances.

Our new team of race management (my wife Julie, and Larry & Christine Graham) are somewhat grateful for the horrid conditions this year. It helped stagger the finishing times, and reduced everyone's "intensity" to a point where we could learn our "first year lessons" without snippy participants. I think everyone was just happy to survive!

We're grateful for your participation...and look forward to your return. We promise perfect conditions next year :)

Jeff Stephens
Calvin's management team

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on a great ride.
Tony Goodnight got me interested in doing Calvin's challenge next year & you have reinforced my decision with your write-up.You sure had a great story to tell. See you there in '09
Tom Florian

slo joe recumbo said...

Thanks for a fun read. I followed Calvin's because I briefly corresponded with new organizer, Larry Grahm, and know one of the RAAM riders: John Schlitter on a recumbent.

After reading about Calvins and the organizers, I'm not a racer but will volunteer next year if I can time a biz trip from where I am overseas.

Most important: Kudos for braving the elements and going the distance.