Thursday, January 7, 2010

PA Dutch 200k - Surviving Extreme Conditions

The weather for the Pennsylvania Dutch 200k featured a very strong high pressure system over the Great Lakes and a deep low that came up the east coast. The reinforcing winds around these systems were like those mechanical baseball machines that shoot balls out between two spinning wheels. But instead of 90 MPH baseballs, we got 20-30 MPH Arctic air from Canada blasted at us, with gusts of 40+. Temperatures hovered around 14F at the start. Extreme conditions, to be sure. But 3 riders successfully completed a challenging 200k in 13 hours. And a 4th rider covered the entire distance, enduring those conditions for over 14 1/2 hours. The following are some highlights of how my ride unfolded.

As with many other aspects of randonneuring, the mental challenge is probably one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. On the night before the event, I attended a holiday party. As we arrived that evening, the temperatures were already plummeting and the winds were beginning to whip up. As the topic of conversation shifted to my plans the next day to wake up at 3AM the next morning and ride 128 miles in frigid weather, the question of my sanity was raised. By that time, I already had gotten some sanity checks from some other riders:

One rider wrote: "... I just did a 3-hour ride in temps of 25 dropping to 21, with wind gust to 30 mph. The roads were fine, but my average speed was 12.9 mph. I can't see doing a ride that's 6-7 hours longer in similar conditions. So I won't see you tomorrow for the 200K but maybe conditions will be a bit more reasonable in Feb. Good luck!"

Another wrote: "...As I loaded up my car tonight to get everything ready to leave the house by 4:30AM I about froze myself out there in the 40 mph wind and 12 deg. F cold. I thought about all of the work I have still to get completed before I return to work first thing Monday morning and realized that I really need to get into work tomorrow to catch up and I'd be too distracted to enjoy the Sunday brevet..."

On past events, I've ridden with very cold temperatures at the start. On other events, I've endured adverse winds. But the wicked combination of both these challenges at once was un-ventured territory for me -- in truth, I had some doubts that it would be physically possible to overcome them. It took quite a while for me to wrap my mind around the task ahead and make the mental commitment. For starters, I promised my wife that if nobody else shows up, then I would not ride either. And by showing some weakness of resolve, that opened the door for some negotiations that went something like "... well if only 2 of the 20 riders show up, then what?" And so on. As it turns out, 8 riders showed up with a willingness to clip-in. With that critical mass, and 2 of them newcomers at that, I made the commitment to at least ride to the first controle.

The randonneuring golden rule of not thinking about the entire ride before you is always useful. And with these conditions, the 25-45 mile segments between the controles were manageable goals to focus upon. The first 25-mile segment was generally downwind and was a good way to gently "ease into" the maelstrom whirling around us. However, as the course zig-zagged through the maze of roads in the Lancaster area, we would get a brief taste of what the headwinds would be like as we headed on the next 45-mile segment that was generally into the wind. At one point, I was about a 100 yards behind one rider as he made a turn right into the wind. It was a quite a sight to behold as he struggled to barely move forward against the onslaught of the wind.

Upon reaching the first controle at the 25-mile mark, the first order of business was to head to the hot chocolate machine. Then, it was time to assess how well the clothing was working. Hands and feet are the most vulnerable areas and usually are the biggest problem for many riders. Keeping those extremities warm starts by keeping your core body temperature warm. So far, my choice of a long sleeve wool jersey, followed by synthetic winter jersey with a rain jacket for the outer layer was working out well. Foot protection consisted of wool socks and an oversock, with a foot warmer sandwiched in between, followed by a neoprene booties over my bike shoes. Waterproof winter gloves with hand warmers were working surprisingly well -- I had hoped to buy some mittens but none were available at my local bike shop. I always make sure that there is enough free space so I can periodically move my toes and fingers around to help keep the circulation going.

One area that was not working out was with my pants -- specifically, the delicate area in my crotch was most definitely cold and numb. This was most definitely a major problem to have at this point in the ride, since the real challenge lay ahead in the form of a 45-mile slog against the wind to next controle in Columbia. If I couldn't figure out a way to overcome this problem, then there would be no chance of going on further.

Fortunately, the numbness went away after about 20 minutes of hanging around the warm the store. I then set out to improvise better protection. I started by putting a bunch of paper napkins in between my shorts and tights -- this added a much needed wind barrier. I then fished out a pair of glove liners that I had as spares, and stuffed them in the front of my shorts. The good news was that this did the trick and ended up working wonderfully. The bad news was that all this messing around had left me with only 15 minutes left in the time bank. Those headwinds were going to make it very difficult to keep a 9.5 MPH pace for the 45 miles to the next controle.

There's nothing like the prospect of missing a cut-off time to really sharpen your mind and focus your attention. The continuous mental calculations to check my pacing was a wonderful distraction from the cold and buffeting winds. I set mileage goals for every 15 minutes and slowly but surely, I was able to eek out an extra couple of tenths of miles for every 15-minute goal. This little diversion was a source of joy and optimism that this ride might just be doable, after all. If I could make it to the next controle within the time limit, the rest of the course was generally downwind -- in theory, I could just set the sails and let the wind blow me back home.

After about 25 miles into this leg, I had built up a cushion of about 30 minutes. However, at this point, my water bottle was frozen. I had a camelback that I wore underneath my jacket. But the tube and bite-valve were frozen solid -- even though I blew back the water line after each sip, I was not careful enough about keeping the tube and bite-valve protected in my jacket as well. Another problem was eating food -- it was impossible to eat while riding, since both hands were needed to keep the bike upright. I knew that the last 9 miles to the controle were probably going to be the toughest, and bonking at that point was not going to be a good thing to have happen. So I dipped into my precious bank of time that I worked so hard to build up, and withdrew about 15 minutes at a convenience store to thaw out, rehydrate and eat some food.

That investment of time at the convenience store paid big dividends by the time I got to that 9-mile segment, which started the climb up Turkey Hill. The climb, under normal conditions, is a pretty stiff one. But today, the winds got progressively harder as you got higher into the exposed elevations. Standing was not a very good option -- the increased wind exposure negated any leverage advantage. At that particular moment, I'd have to say that the climb was harder than any other climb I can remember doing in that area. And right after Turkey Hill, there was an exposed 3-mile stretch along the Susquehanna River where the winds were augmented by the funnel effect of the river banks. I'm not sure how I would've made it, if I hadn't made the decision to stop and replenish before this particularly brutal 9-mile stretch.

I reached the Columbia controle with about 20 minutes to spare. It was a major accomplishment -- although just past the halfway point in mileage, it was the furthest point upwind. However, I didn't have that much time to hang around and savor this victory ... the next controle was only 20 miles away. And although it was generally downwind, there were a couple of good climbs ahead with a few zig-zags that would take us into the wind again. I did take the time however, to change into a spare wool jersey that I had carried along -- it certainly doesn't take very long to get hypo-thermic when stopping at a controle, if your body is wet.

Although I left the Columbia controle with a 10-minute deficit towards the next controle, I was able to make this up in the first 10 miles. At one point, the wind was pushing me along at a 25 MPH clip with hardly any effort on my part. With the worries about making cut-off time beginning to ease, I was finally able to savor the beauty of the course in the fading afternoon sun.

The last controle before the finish was at the 90-mile point in Lititz, where I met up with Andrew Mead and Len Zawodniak. We had been overlapping all day at the controles and with dark upon us now, we decided to ride together to the finish. As we headed out for this last 38-mile leg to the finish, my water bottle at this point was an interesting mixture of Perpetum, root beer, and hot chocolate -- all diluted down with hot water at the last controle. Unfortunately, my bottle and camelback froze up again after 20 miles.

I also had trouble getting enough air through my nose (felt like I was breathing through a small straw). So I ended up mostly breathing through my mouth all day. The cold dry air irritated my lungs. This led to coughing problems that got progressively worse throughout the day. I could now appreciate the bandanna that Andrew used over his mouth -- instead of dry cold air, he had warm moist air going into his lungs.

Those little nuisances eventually became a major problem for me. I had trouble breathing and staying hydrated all day and it finally got to me at the very end. I **had** to stop for some fluids and cough drops with just a couple of miles to go.

As I finally limped into the finish, I realized how slim the margin of success was for me. I just barely was able to consume enough fluids and food to make it. A flat tire or other mechanical probably would've pushed me over the time limit. A navigation error would've been very difficult to recover from. When the conditions are extreme, there is very little margin for error, and any small nuisance can easily blossom into a major problem.

-Tom Rosenbauer
Eastern PA RBA

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