Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Coal Mining at the Hilly Billy

Hilly Billy Roubaix.  

72 miles on pavement, dirt and gravel roads.  About 8,000 feet of climbing. 

Well, that's another crazy one in the books.

         The weird patterning of scratches on my legs and arms (particularly the right leg and arm) is unique this time around.
         Ruthless Sherman and I regretted missing our team's feature event of the year, the Corning Circuit Race.  But LiLynn and Ruth had committed to racing as many of the Great American Ultracross Series races as they could, and while I couldn't quite say I'd try doing every one, I wanted to do those I could because these races really give you something else entirely from your typical road/mountain/cyclocross event.  
         LiLynn passed on this one due to a nasty case of Lyme disease.  Ruth and I really missed her. Ruth had returned from a trip to the Phillippines only the day before we left for West Virginia, and suffered from jet lag and lack of riding her bike for weeks.
I'll never forget the race itself.
         In the staging area I met some of my Lower Eagle friends from the Transylvania Mountain Bike Epic, and how great to see some familiar faces!  Libbey Sheldon told me she had actually separated her shoulder when she crashed on the queen stage at TSE, and that she had ridden THE ENTIRE LAST STAGE with a Grade 2 separation, the same injury I had last year.  "I wondered why I was crying so much," she said. "It really hurt."  Her husband Chris would be racing Hilly Billy.  I also got to see Bruce Dickman of ProGold again, another great character I first met at TSE.  Of course he made fun of me when I told him I'd been using the BikeWash almost undiluted to clean my bike and shoes...
          By start time at 10:00am Saturday temperatures were probably already in the 80s.  I say probably because I don't know for sure.  But heat would beat the fight out of a good many racers that day.  I heard the number of DNFs was remarkable.
We massed up together at the race venue--Mylan Horse Park, about 15 minutes outside of Morgantown, WV.  After preliminary announcements we rolled out of the park in a neutral start, and after a brief stop at end of the park driveway they blew an airhorn and turned us loose.  
The first three or four miles got interesting.  The rolling pavement hills gave way to gravel roads.  Gravel can mean a lot.  It can mean small chippy gravel, medium triangle driveway gravel, giant elephant railroad bed gravel.  I think we got all three types in the first few miles.  We passed houses and farms and at one point a huge black bull bellowed at us behind an electrified fence just a few feet from the road. When we started to climb, the fight for traction began.  Riders stringing out in double lines scrapped over the clearer foot-wide tire lanes between the elephant gravel.  Tires skidded and rocks kicked up and pinged off pedals and crank.  A piece of smaller gravel stung my face.  People tried too hard to put power to the pedals and pass where they could.  But you had to find the happy medium between pedaling too hard and skidding the back wheel out or losing momentum and stalling out. I only passed where I felt in danger of losing momentum or getting trapped behind someone faltering on the gravel.  I did move up a few spots where a little grassy road shoulder gave solid traction under the tires, but mostly kept grinding along dodging the riders who spun out and had to unclip trying to pass, and then couldn't get into the moving traffic flowing along.
        Clouds of dust rose and hung in the air.
I started a bit conservatively.  The distance, the climbing, and the heat made me wary of redlining this early on.  
          Still, I worked my way forward.  We crested the first hill and headed down the first descent.  I didn't know this course and couldn't see much in the swirling dust and shade but the gravel stayed loose.  Play it safe, I thought.
     Too many bodies obscured the view when the road curved down on the first descent.  I kept a lid on the speed with so many other riders around me in various degrees of control.  Brakes screamed.  Mine joined in.  The pitch of the hill steepened radically.  My back wheel locked and the bike fishtailed as too late I saw the corner marshal and the hard 90-degree turn right below me.  No chance of making the corner, I had a split second to let go of the bars, ball up and shut my eyes.  My front wheel hit, the bike flipped and whee!  I was flying!  I landed halfway down a dark and wet ravine, stopped by a tangle of branches and thorny briars. 
          I got up and saw a flash of yellow below me in the trickling stream in the bottom of the ravine.  My EpiPens and med kit.  Below that, my PocketRocket pump, and farther down my cell phone, still double-wrapped in sealed plastic bags.  Yard sale!  I scrambled deeper down into the briars cleaning up my bits and pieces while hoping I hadn't broken my phone.
The corner marshal called down at me.  
"Are you OK?"
"Yes, just getting all my stuff.  Thanks!"
I crawled out of the stream, retrieved my bike and dragged it up out of the brush thanking whatever patron saint protects idiots, drunks, and bicycle racers.  Meanwhile more racers hurtled past me.  Time to go.  Completely unhurt except for a few bleeding scratches, I started pedaling and glanced down at my Garmin.
We had raced 4.38 miles.
68ish miles to go.  
More descending on loose gravel threatened my shaken brain.
I caught back up to Ruth.  "Vanessa!  I thought you were ahead of me!"
I filled her in on my detour, which was pretty funny actually.  

       I rode for some time with Ruth and a few men including fellow Transylvanian Chris Merriam, who was riding strong, and a woman in a green Pathfinder jersey.  I don't clearly remember but at some point I hit my tempo for the race and settled in, and Chris came with me and some time after that I looked back and we had lost most of the others.
We kept working down a dirt road with massive puddles or rather small ponds and the choices of lines around them became more and more limited. Sometimes you had a nice packed hard (if narrow) line around the puddles, sometimes you didn't.  Sometimes you got deep mud as your only choice of line.  At times riders in front of me plowed through some of the puddles.  Some were shallow.  Some were NOT.
         I followed too close at one point and slammed into a pothole by mistake when the rider in front of me dodged and I didn't, and a loud "chung" noise came from my front wheel.  Luckily no broken spoke.
          Then I plowed into a deep water hole that was NOT SHALLOW NOT SHALLOW!   The bike abruptly stopped.  I dismounted and nearly fell when my feet sank into 3-inch heavy muck below the water, which was knee-high.  I yanked hard on the handlebars but the bike didn't budge.  I yanked again.  Was that mud or quicksand at the bottom?  The third time the bike came loose with a sucking sound and I sloshed out of the muddy water.  A photographer captured everything.  This was stupid and funny and ridiculous but time to keep riding.  I ran, remounted, and started pedaling, but now with some squelching that continued with every pedal stroke for the next 40ish miles.  The back wheel had kicked up wet mud all over my back pockets.
I wondered how my cell phone was holding up.

WRONG way! WRONG way!  (photo courtesy Mike Briggs)

Dragging my bike out, sort of laughing.  (photo courtesy Mike Briggs)

Life got thirsty a mile or two down the road and I reached for my water bottle, put my lips over the muddy spout,  swished and spat the grit with some of the bottle contents and then gulped.  Not as gross as you might think.   Luckily.  The bottle had had the cap locked down before getting submerged in the "puddle."

          I settled more into the pace and kind of locked my brain down.  Life got boiled down to a few very simple things for the next few hours.   Pedal hard enough but not too hard.  Drink, DRINK.  Most of my calories came from mixed Perpetuem bottles in the drop bags, since solid food usually causes nausea for me in the heat.

           At the first checkpoint a volunteer retrieved my first drop bag.  For some races, you may leave drop bags in large bins at the start since in a long race you can't carry all the calories and drink you'll need.   You mark them with your name and race number and put them into the appropriate bin for the checkpoint where you want to pick them up.  The volunteers at this race were AWESOME.  The woman who brought me my first bag also brought a gallon jug of cold water and yes, she said it was okay if I poured a little on myself instead of just drinking.  I wouldn't do it without asking but she said, "Go for it, we're not going to run out of water."
I took my Perpetuem bottle (which also had extra electrolytes), refilled my plain water bottle, drank half of the cold stuff right away, poured a little through my helmet vents over my head and down my neck and chest.  I refilled the bottle completely and stashed it in my back jersey pocket.
"You're first woman," she said.  "So just keep that in mind."  I just said, "Oh we'll see.  Thank you so much!" and took off.
I assumed someone else had slipped by already.

       At the second checkpoint I repeated my bottle swapping, cold-water chugging and rinsing.  Again another kind volunteer took care of me and said, "You're the first woman to come through."  Again I  disregarded that.   I left that checkpoint and continued on riding with a few men here and there.  I made some good friends during this race.  I had one guy on my wheel hitting one of the longer gravel descents of the day, and when I nearly overdid it again on a downhill curve, I unclipped my foot and hung it out instead of braking and he yelled "Awesome!"  When he caught back up to me, he said "That was awesome.  It's never too early in the season for a drive-by!"   I didn't know there was a word for that.

        The race punched us repeatedly with hill after hill.  Steep grinders you took sitting down to keep that back wheel engaged on the loose gravel.  I wanted to go harder on many of the climbs but the heat really worried me.  Heatstroke doesn't care whether you're well hydrated or not.  When the unshaded sun hit on some climbs it devastated me.  If my body had a "check engine" light it would have blinked the whole race.
My bike began showing signs of stress. On the road sections I felt a wub in the back wheel and wondered about the beating it had taken so early in the race on those crazy dirt road sections.  If the number of people I saw with flats and mechanicals meant anything, this course practically ate bikes.

        At the third checkpoint, the arch of my right foot cramped painfully as I unclipped it from my pedal, and I only got it under control by forcing myself to stand on it while the next volunteer brought me my drop bag and more water.  A few miles later, a muscle in my right arm started fluttering spastically and when I took my hand off the bars to flex it for a minute while coasting downhill, my hand wanted to curl itself into a claw.  I tried to straighten my fingers out and stretch it using my handlebars but it resisted.  Ugh.  It creeped me out to see "the claw" so I just put my hand back on the handlebar hood and kept pedaling.

         The course took us uphill past a huge power plant with coal trucks driving in and out.  A set of automatic sprayers hosed the trucks with water as they left the plant.  Climbing the scorching pavement toward the plant in the sun, I locked in on the water sprayers.  A course marshal stood directing us to turn left just before the sprayers.  I wanted to ride through that water so badly.  Please, I thought, please just point to the water and let me go through.
No.  He pointed left up another gravel wall of a hill.  Come on, why not?  Just a little shower?  This heat will kill us all, I thought.  I didn't say anything other than thank you to the marshal, though I resented him pretty badly just then.

        Late in the race more cramps began.  With maybe ten miles to go? I turned a near-180 degree corner and faced straight up a steep brown dirt road that looked like an ATV track and a rough one at that.   A pain shocked me in my right leg. I'd never experienced hamstring cramping like that.  I made a weird noise between a growl and a gargle as that dirt wall stared me, thinking that might be it for this race...but kept going.  Then as the slope of the hill took over the pain stopped and a weird fluttering feeling took over in the muscle, then passed.  Praying it would stay away, I kept pedaling and found I could still ride just fine.  But now it had gotten into my head.  It could come back any time.  I forced down a gel and some warm drink.  The left side of my lower back hurt when I climbed, probably from crashing.

         Most of the race, I had done a good job of ignoring what all the checkpoint volunteers and even some corner marshals kept telling me, though they told me over and over I was first woman.  I didn't think much about it because it didn't matter.  Regardless of where any other women were in relation to me, I HAD to keep up the pace and ride my own race.  I could only ride as fast as my body would let me. I kept my brain on a tight leash to focus very, very hard on consistent pace and on drinking enough--doubly critical for me in the heat.  Solid food won't sit well with me in that heat, so all my calories had to be liquid, hence the Perpetuem mix.  I feared most of the race I wasn't drinking enough, since I didn't completely drain my bottles between checkpoints.  In retrospect, I DID drink enough.  Since I rode faster than I expected to, the race took less time.
Still, the last 10 miles seemed endless.  With just a few miles left I thought I saw a woman behind me on one of the climbs. Finally I think the possibility of being first had worked into my mind somehow, because I stopped trying to conserve any energy at all, stopped being careful about the heat.  Race brain took over completely.  Four or five miles left?  When I finally saw the race venue and the flags in the distance somehow I went even harder.  Only two or three men straggled far behind me when I looked back.  The last mile or so was sharply cut grass climbing huge hills overlooking the race venue.  Then a steep grass descent that threatened to rattle the bars out of my hands.  I just let the bike go.  A turn onto the final piece of road:  the driveway up to the park.  One more climb.  Follow the arrows.  A chute marked with tape that crossed the horse arena.  Water, I thought, there will be water here.  Music, announcer.   Through the horse arena.  Finish tent.  I wanted cold, cold water.  I wasn't finished, I was DONE.  I put the bike down and somebody handed me a Mason jar with a Hilly Billy sticker.  I put everything down and started looking for cold water.  Someone gave me a cup of ice water and for a while I stared at my cup and reflected deeply on water and coldness.  After two full cups I graduated to advanced studies in cold liquids with an iced Coke.  Finally I started looking around and didn't see too many racers there.  Where was everybody?  I asked someone who seemed official how many other women had come in.  "Nobody.  You're it."  He asked one of the men working on results, and got my final answer.  I'd won.
          I celebrated by going into the women's bathroom and taking a sink shower.  I wondered how Ruth was faring out there and soon she came in, suffering from heat.  She'd cramped completely, had to walk several climbs because she couldn't put any power into the pedals and just had had a really really tough time.  But because she's Ruth and is amazing, she finished fifth.  I think everyone had a rough time.  This race is HARD.  Add in heat, and hoo boy you're in for good times!  Chris Merriam told me later he'd thrown up a few times later in the race after I lost him.

Water.  Please.  Water.  (photo by Mike Briggs)

         The post-race party began as more and more racers rolled in.  Three kegs of beer sat on ice waiting for them.  A giant pan of bacon.  Tons of cookies, chips, crackers, pretzels, pizza.  The water was really really good.
         Awards followed.  Both Ruth and I stood on the podium (barrels surrounded by straw) and Stephanie Swan helped me with my "champagne" bottle since I didn't  know what to do with it, not being real experienced in the champagne-popping-on-podiums department.  I got myself a real big chunk of coal bolted to a board.  Normally I am not a big fan of trophies.  This  I also won some Toasted Head Chardonnay and a whole big Mason jar of moonshine, half of which ProGold Bruce begged off me.  I filled a Hilly Billy jar for him. 

          I got to meet Hilly Billy promoter J.R. Petsko, who asked what I thought of the race. I told him it was really hard, and that it truly lived up to all of its hype. 

I'm still recovering.


Video interview where I babble:

Now THIS is a trophy.

A Hilly Billy hillbilly...yes the volunteers had a costume contest.  This is a winner right here!

Garth Prosser and another Toasted Head fan.

Sunday morning coffee served up Hilly Billy style.