Study in Lights and Darks: My 300K DNF
Earlier this Spring, I completed four RUSA-sanctioned events with the New England Randonneurs: two 100K Permanents, the official 100K Populaire, and the 200K brevet. Initially I had no plans to attempt the 300K. But in the weeks that followed a gradual change of heart began to take place. Largely this was because I found the route so attractive. It was a new route this year - a tour of Massachusetts via rural back roads, and it looked simply too good to miss. As time passed, something also changed in me physically and I began to feel - in a very literal sense - that I had it in me to do the distance. That I had the strength, the willingness, the potential at least. As the date of the 300K approached, this feeling solidified. It was in the car heading home from DROVES (a weekend retreat in Vermont that focused on dirt roads and climbing) that I made the firm decision.
After DROVES I felt well rested, and as well-trained as I was going to get. I did not ride much in the following days, saving my strength for the 300K. I also gave a lot of thought to the logistics of the event. Aside from the added milage, there were several new challenges to consider. One was the elevation gain. Everyone who knew the route warned me about the huge amount of climbing, describing it as even more difficult than the climbs on the 200K. With this in mind, I decided to take my Rawland instead of my lighter and racier Seven, because the former has considerably lower gears. In preparation, I did a couple of paved 100K+ rides on the Rawland and timed myself. Though a bit slower, I was still fast enough to get through a brevet on time. Conveniently, this bike was also equipped with dynamo lights.
But what had even experienced randonneurs concerned about the 300K this year, was the weather. We've had a cold spring, and the previous weekend in particular was downright wintry. On the day of the brevet, the forecast promised temperatures in the mid-90s. To ride all day in such heat is difficult enough, but to do so without having a chance to acclimatise is even more so. I do not do well in hot weather, so I tried to prepare. I stayed off alcohol and started drinking loads of water days before the ride. I procured an ultra-lightweight white mesh jersey with SPF protection and "sun sleeves." I stocked up on electrolyte mix to last the entire ride. And in the hot days before the 300K I went out for brief rides in the sun at high noon, so that the weather would not be a complete shock the day of.
The actual distance of the event would be 193.4 miles. I was able to get a ride to the start from another rider, which meant I would not need to add any extra miles riding to and from home. Barring unforeseen circumstances, it all seemed manageable.
Even at 5:30 in the morning, filling out forms in the concrete parking lot of the Hanscom Airbase, it was obvious that the day would be scorchingly hot. The sun was out already, casting dramatic shadows. I applied sunscreen and wandered around. It looked like 35 or so riders with the usual variety of bicycles - from modern road race to traditional rando, to everything in between. Unlike on previous rides, everyone had a good sized handlebar or saddle bag, or both, attached to their bike this time. I was teased a little for showing up at the 300K after having said "no more" last time. Yeah yeah yeah, I grumbled.
Setting off just after 6am, there was some shuffling around for the first mile, but soon we were all strung out a comfortable distance from one another, with me somewhere in the middle.
The first leg was easy, pleasant, and immediately scenic. It made for an excellent warm-up: starting out flat and rolling, building up to a 2-mile climb at the end. Briefly I rode with another Ride Studio Cafe cyclist, Henry. He is Dutch, very strong, with beautiful pedal strokes. We wished each other good luck, and soon he was off like a slingshot. Later I was caught by some other riders I knew from previous brevets. They passed me uphill, I passed them downhill, they passed me uphill again. After that I passed two riders on the side of the road, one of whom was having a mechanical issue. At the first control, I ate a hot breakfast quickly and moved on right away.
On paper, the second leg was all climbing. But in practice I did not experience it that way. Except for a short very steep stretch toward the end where I had to walk briefly, it all felt fine. I was making good time, with plenty of cushion room. The scenery was beautiful, with lots of shade to shield riders from the intensifying sun. I was going through my water at a rate of one bottle per 10-15 miles and feeling good. Part of the way, I rode with another rider and we arrived at the second control together: a country store at mile 52. Here I refilled my 3 bottles (two in the cages, one in the handlebar bag) and tried to force myself to eat. It was getting very hot now and I had no appetite. Others at the control seemed to feel the same, hanging out in the shade until they felt cooled down enough to eat. It was very comfortable at the little country store, with its picnic benches surrounded by pine trees. I tried not to stay too long and was soon on my way again.
Leg 3 took us to the westernmost point of the route and over beautiful stretches such as Tully Lake and Mt. Grace. I was feeling so good and elated at this point, that I did not realise I was climbing over an actual mountain until I saw it on the map later. At the 65 mile point I checked my time and saw I was just over 6 hours into the ride. I passed a few riders somewhere along the way, which I took as a sign I was doing okay. If I kept going at this rate, I would finish in 18 hours - with 2 hours to spare before the 20 hour cutoff. By the time I arrived at the next control at mile 85 I lost some of that cushion on the final climb, but was still doing well. I was also feeling hungry now, which was timely as this was the food stop: a BBQ place with outdoor seating.
At the food stop, there were many other riders, and some of them did not look good - suffering from the heat. Some sat in front of their food staring at it absently. Others were lying down on the grass with their eyes closed. I heard one rider making a phone call to announce he was abandoning. And I learned that at least two others had abandoned already as well.
But the biggest surprise was seeing Emily at this control. Emily is a much, much stronger rider than me, and at timed events I would not normally see her for the entire ride. To catch up to her on a control meant something was wrong. And it was: She couldn't eat; she didn't feel well in the heat. Leaving most of her food behind, she finally left shortly before I did. Even her dill pickle remained half-eaten.
As I set off to leave, I asked where the bathroom was and learned it was out of order. The owner tried to give me directions to the bathrooms in the town center, but I did not want to waste time on a detour and continued without a pee break.
Shortly after we passed Deerfield - the home of the famous D2R2 event - something uncanny happened. I remembered that Richard Sachs lived somewhere in the area. And no sooner did this thought cross my mind, that I saw a lone dark figure on a bicycle on the opposite side of the country highway. "No way," I thought. "No way." But as we neared each other, I could clearly make out the red bike and the all-black kit, and finally the face - across which a look of what seemed like surprised recognition flashed just as we crossed paths for that split second. The "was it or wasn't it?!" question plagued me for the rest of the ride. When Mr. Sachs himself confirmed it later that weekend, I was immensely relieved it was not a heatstroke-induced hallucination.
The rest of the way was "only" 80 miles at this point. I felt in my legs and in my gut that I could do it. I just needed to be mindful of the time and make it to the next control with some cushion. After that, it would be just the final leg home.
Leg 5 was the last one with any major climbing. To be precise: an 11-mile climb, followed by a descent and a flat stretch, followed by a 5-mile climb. I knew it would be difficult, but on paper it did not look any worse than the stretches we'd done earlier. In practice, it felt much worse. The sun was waning already, but the heat of the day had done its work and I felt "cooked." With over 100 miles in my legs, I was slow climbing. I spun and ground and pushed myself and played songs in my head with a fast rhythm, and even tried to stand (successfully), but nothing helped. No matter how I tackled the 11-mile climb, I was slow. Slow-slow-slow. Some miles in, Emily caught up. She attempted to ride with me, but I was sincerely worried about my speed and did not want to drag her down with me - so I told her to go on without. Reluctantly she agreed and disappeared around the next bend. I tried standing and pedaling in a higher gear again. The fact that I could do it was not bringing me any joy now. It didn't seem to help. I sat back down and spun/ground as fast as I could. It was endless. I could feel the time slipping away.
Until the dirt road. When I first saw what awaited me, I could not believe it. First came a section where the road was under construction, "Caution, turn back" signs, completely dug up and unridable, and finally blocked from traffic with tall piles of sand and debris. I had to carry my bike across this for what must have been just a short time but seemed eternal at this stage in the game. Then came the 2-mile stretch of "dirt," which was, frankly, loose sand all the way, strewn with alarmingly sharp rocks. Fishtailing slightly even with my 42mm tires, I could only imagine what this felt like on skinny road tires. It did not seem right to be on this godforsaken road, but both my GPS and cue sheet directions indicated I was riding where I was supposed to be. This was confirmed when a car passed me... a car belonging to one of the ride volunteers, with a bike hoisted upon the roof-rack and a dispirited-looking rider in the passenger's seat. Another abandon.
Volunteer staff were waiting in a wooden pavilion. When I got off the bike, I was so out of breath that I could not speak. I attempted to ask whether I made it on time, but instead started hyperventilating and making wailing sounds. People stared with undisguised concern. I tried to shut my mouth and sit down, but it only got worse, until I finally let out all the wailing that was pent up inside. What that was, I still have no idea.
And then, just like that, I was fine. I checked the time and learned I'd arrived 10 minutes before the cutoff. I drank a cup of chocolate milk and ate a hard boiled egg. I put on a reflective vest, spare lights, and helmet light, preparing to set off again.
I set off on the last leg at 8:45pm. This was a long one - 55 miles, but it would soon have us on familiar territory. I had over 5 hours to cover the remaining distance, with not much climbing to speak of except in the very beginning. It was growing cool. I was not in any pain. I was tired, but not so tired I could not crank out the miles without stopping. This was doable, very doable. I just had to keep going.
And then, I began to notice with growing alarm, that I could not see where I was going. This was so unexpected that it took some time to even sink in. I consider(ed) myself to be an experienced night rider, and, based on previous experiences, genuinely thought that I was prepared for the night stretch of the route. I had a powerful dynamo headlight on my front rack, and a battery powered headlight on my handlebars, and a helmet mounted headlight. But even all this was not sufficient for the area I found myself in, especially riding alone. The sky was black - moonless and starless; there was no illumination of any kind. There was not even a yellow lane divider or a white fog line to focus on. With my 3 headlights I could see the potholes at various distances in front of me illuminated brilliantly, but I could not see the curvature of the road further ahead. And this meant I could not safely pick up speed, especially on descents, without the risk of going off the side of the road. Several times I stopped and tried to adjust my lights to point further out. This did not help much - they were not diffuse enough to do what I wanted them to do. I kept riding at the maximum speed I felt was safe, which was pitiful considering the twists and turns of the back road. My last hope was Emily catching up with me, and us combining our light power.
But increasingly, I was losing time on the climbs and unable to make it up on the descents, since I could not see where I was going. With a sense of dread I checked the time: It was approaching 10pm and I had barely advanced 10 miles. With 45 miles left to go and 4 hours to do it in, I was not going to finish if I kept riding at this pace. My mind went into emergency-analytical mode, putting aside all emotion to determine the logical course of action.
Fact: I would not make the cutoff, unless I started to ride drastically faster. Fact: The pitch black road conditions were unlikely to change, which meant I was unlikely to ride faster. Fact: Since Emily has not caught up to me by now, she had most likely abandoned herself, which meant I was the last rider remaining on the course. Fact: If I continued riding anyway, I would not only be putting myself at risk in the dark for nothing, but inconveniencing the organisers - who would wait for me as long as I was still out there. The logical course of action was to abandon.
At the gas station parking lot ten minutes later, I saw two sets of headlights. It was Emily, along with another rider - the one who'd been lying down at the last control. I expected them to keep going, but they pulled in to the gas station. Emily wanted to buy a coke, and there was something off, I thought, about how important this seemed to her, with so little time left. The clerk who was closing up got her one and she sat down with it on the pavement. The other rider lied down on the porch. They seemed quite settled in. I tell them they need to keep going immediately, if they want to make the cutoff. I am not sure they understand or even hear me. I offer my bananas, water, Shot Blocks. "Look, you shouldn't sit here, you need to get going. I am only here because I'm done." Emily looks at her coke long and hard. "Well... maybe I'm done too." She looks at her watch. "Yeah..."
I know that Emily has been randonneuring for over 10 years and she has never DNFed an event. Damn it, I think. She was not planning to quit until she saw me sitting here. I contemplate continuing with them, but it makes no sense. I try to encourage them, waving my banana and extra water fetchingly. But they really are done now, sprawled on the porch, talking politics and sci-fi books. Now that more time has passed and the decision is irreversible, they relax and become more animated. Each has made the call and they are waiting for a ride.
I feel too numb to joint the conversation. I put myself on autopilot and start disassembling my bike. My husband arrives in a tiny ZipCar and we wrangle the pieces inside. He will never trust me to be "okay on my own" again, is all I can think of as we drive home. Well, maybe he never did.
At home, I went straight to sleep and didn't dream about anything. The next day I felt strange, weepy. After that I thought I was fine, but I ran into Emily in town two days later and had an almost PTSD-type experience when we started talking about the ride. She did not seem too happy either.
All through the following week I would recall fragments of the brevet, sending my emotions into wild extremes of highs and lows. I would remember pedaling over Mt. Grace, elated, hot breeze in my face, smelling pine trees in the sun and looking down at miles of farmlands. What ecstasy, to have made it out this far on my own, and to feel as if I could keep on going forever.
Then later I would recall riding through that damned forest in the dark, alone, nearly going off the side of the road, ominous rustlings behind the trees. That feeling of doom seeping in, like a cold thick liquid against my skin. The decision to abandon after nearly 150 miles, after all that climbing, after having ridden clear across the state and back...
Well, what else is there to say. So much drama about a little brevet. Better luck next time and all that. It is good for the character to fail on occasion. I will try to learn what I can from it. And I will always remember the many beautiful moments of this ride, the kindness of the volunteers, the support of the other riders. Thank you to all who were there, and congratulations to the finishers. Happy trails to all for future brevets and other adventures.