Thursday, May 22, 2014

"You couldn't break me" - race report from the Princeton 300k bike ride

I'm sure you've heard of the saying, "when it rains, it pours." A classic line we've all used when bad things snowball after one another, one after the next. While caught in the storm, it's impossible to think beyond it. Will it ever get better? Of course the answer to that question is yes, but rarely does this thought cross our minds in the moment. We're too engrossed in the negative to think about the positive. But, it's this resilient sense of optimism -  that things will ultimately get better (and we'll be a better person for it) - carries us through.


I pulled myself up off the pavement. Now wet, I look down at my right leg to see blood seeping out of my knee and ankle. I pick up my bike and gingerly move to the shoulder of the road. A friend of mine, Jeremy, and I inspect the tires. Both seem fine. I quickly check the brake calipers to ensure they are in proper alignment. I gently pat the open wound on my knee with my new gloves. Just a couple days prior I contemplated not wearing any, but a friend convinced me otherwise. For $11 a the local bike shop, they've already exceeded their value, probably preventing another gash the the palm of the hand, which happened a few weeks ago (the result of not wearing gloves).

The only light shines from the headlamp strapped around my helmet. It's just after 4:30 in the morning. The sun hasn't come up yet. There is a distinct chill in the 45 degree air. Moisture still covered the pavement, a reminder of the heavy rain from the day before. "Perfect, and now I'm wet AND cold - not a good combination," I thought to myself. 

Just three minutes into the ride, I hit a water-filled pothole. In the darkness of the early morning hour, the water masking the appearance of a pothole, and my briefly glancing at the cue sheet and not keeping my eyes on the pavement ahead combined in some cruel act of conspiracy. I reached into my pocket to grab the cue sheet, and with only one hand on the handlebars, I didn't stand a chance. Thankfully, myself, my friend Jeremy, and his friend Ryan, weren't riding too fast after just embarking on the 300 kilometer bike ride in Princeton, New Jersey. 

I mount my bike, and we continue on, my focus heightened. The next 20 miles are slow moving, our pace hovering around 10 miles per hour. Anything above that is virtually impossible, mostly because our headlamps can't illuminate too far ahead of us. And with the result of hitting a pothole cautioning us, we slowly trudge on, eagerly awaiting the sun to finally appear over the horizon. 

My right foot and finger tips begin to lose feeling. The cool dawn air combine with the residual moisture from my crash to produce a numbing chill. I have much shorter patience for the sun than Jeremy and Ryan did. 

With the moon still clearly visible, the sky finally begins to lighten. We are almost 90 minutes into a ride that would test our physical endurance, mental resilience, cause two of us to drop out, and leave only one returning back to the Village Plaza parking lot back in Princeton after a nearly sixteen and a half hour day in the saddle. Here we go.


I woke up Friday morning and prepared to go to work like every other morning. But, what I encountered was an omen for things to come the following day. I put my small suitcase and bag of food in the back seat of the car. Next up, time to mount my bike on the bike rack. I stepped into the basement to fetch my bike and found myself standing in a quarter inch of water. The previous night brought some of the heaviest rain our area has had in some time. Flooding was never an issue prior to that Friday morning. And, of course, it just so happened to be the day I'm scheduled to travel for an event. 

Two hours and five towels later, I finally soaked up all of the standing water. My bad luck wouldn't stop there, though. I shifted the car into reverse, glancing at the clock: 3:05 PM. "Not bad," I thought to myself. "After a three-hour drive, that still leaves me plenty of time to wash my bike in preparation for tomorrow's ride, eat dinner, and get to bed at my normal 10PM bed time." 

The digital clock on the car dashboard read 6:30 PM. Instead of sitting in my cousin's house, preparing for the next day's ride, I stared ahead to a seemingly endless stream of red brake lights on Interstate 95. I remained optimistic, trying to convince myself this was the last patch of heavy traffic (it wasn't). Five hours and fifteen minutes later, I finally pull into the driveway at my cousin's house where I stayed the weekend. "Of course, on a day that began with misfortune, it would take me twice as long as normal to get here." 

I expedited my bike wash, mostly because it's nearly dark by now, and because I needed to eat dinner. It's 9:00 PM and I finally sit down to eat my sushi and seaweed salad. Sushi actually makes a decent pre-race meal. It has a good combination of carbohydrate (rice), protein (fish), fat (fish) and micronutrients (seaweed salad and nori wrap used to hold the sushi rolls together). 

Now, it's time to run through the checklist in my head to prepare for the next day's ride. Head- and rear-light on my bike: check. Mix of raw almonds, cashews and coconut flakes into a ziplock bag: check. Ditto for coconut oil: check. UCAN Superstarch into one water bottle: check. Second batch of Superstarch in a small flask to refill halfway through the ride: check. Spare tube, CO2, sunglass lenses, bike tool, and spare contact lenses in my saddle bag: check. Breakfast ready for the next morning (a small sweet potato, avocado, coconut flakes, and coffee with coconut oil): check. Outfit laid out for the next morning: check. 

I made myself a small glass of water mixed with Natural Calm magnesium. It's 10:15 PM. I set my alarm for 3:00 AM. Finally, it's time for bed. "What a day," I thought laying in bed. I had no idea what was in store for me in just a few short hours.


As the sun rose over the horizon, the course's elevation begins to rise at the same time. Our pace feels more normal now. It still isn't what any of us would consider difficult or taxing, but it's a significant jump from our almost sloth-like pace in the dark. The light provides a sense of comfort, of normalcy. I rarely, if ever, ride in the dark, making the pre-dawn hours that much more challenging. 

Our group of three turn into a shopping plaza - our first check point. This is the first of four more of these so-called "control points" interspersed throughout the 300 kilometer course. One of the ride organizers emerges from a bagel shop with a clipboard. I pass him my brevet card (essentially my passport), which he quickly signs and returns to me. He notes my time on the clipboard. "How's your knee?" he asks, noticing the dried blood on my right leg. I explain the story nonchalantly before using the restroom and remounting my bike. We still have a long way to go.

We still also trail all the other riders due to our 30 minute late start. But, the gap is narrowing. As we pulled into the control point, a group of three riders were leaving. It was encouraging to know we were making up ground.

Those first miles after the sun came up are some of the most enjoyable. Few cars, open roads, light. It felt as though it's just us, the road, and the beautiful countryside lining each side of us.

The course takes a noticible turn upwards. A total of six major climbs brake up the 300 kilometers, and mostly come during the middle 100 miles. Jeremy, Ryan and I ride on, methodically climbing the slow inclines and short, punchy ascents. The first major climb arrives in a familiar place in Califon, New Jersey. Growing up in the area I would drive this road up and down Schooley's Mountain countless times. I knew all the turns, the steep ascents, the short flats. This familiarity reassures me as we begin to climb. 

My focus narrows. It becomes entirely about the task at hand, turning the pedals over, keeping a solid cadence, and enjoying my surroundings. I remain in the saddle, never standing. I don't feel as though I need to. I begin to pull several hundred meters ahead of Jeremy and Ryan. I'm trying to conserve energy, but the climbing feels relatively easy. My quads feel strong, never taxed or burning. 

I spot a group of three riders ahead. It's a huge boost in confidence. Renewed energy shoots to my legs and I methodically pass them. We would get to know this group quite well throughout the day, leap-frogging back and forth over the next 80 miles. 

The sun is higher into the sky now, providing some much needed warmth. My damp cycling jersey and shorts are finally drying. Entering the climbing sections of the route also shifts my focus from how cold I felt an hour or so before to riding. The numbness in my fingers is finally gone. The descent down Schooley's Mountain is exhilarating. 

About five hours into the ride we spot a local deli ahead. We're low on water and could use a restroom break. The few moments out of the saddle provide a nice rest, mostly just a change in body position. A few hundred meters after leaving the deli, we come to a downhill and coast down. There was one problem, though. We can't find the next turn. According to Jeremy's bike computer we've covered the mileage indicated on the cue sheet from the last turn to this turn (and then some), but no street. We pull off to the side of the road and consult the always-trusted Google Maps on our phones. 

This wouldn't be the first time we miss a turn or need to stop to look at a map. All this, of course, tacking on valuable time and miles to our already long ride. We turn around, head back up the hill, and determine the unmarked road just before the deli we stopped at is the correct turn. "You've gotta be kidding me," we thought. There would be plenty more unmarked or poorly marked turns to come. I suppose deciphering these turns is part of the challenge?

We turn onto the main street in the rural town of Blairstown, New Jersey. Small, local boutique shops line the single stretch of business in an otherwise rural and dispersed town. The second control point is outside a small coffee shop. "Man, I wish I could sit here for a while and just drink coffee." It's an absolutely beautiful spring morning. Several other riders are also at the control point. We're certainly making progress overtaking some of the field. 

I take a few minutes to top off both water bottles, refill my bottle with my second batch of Superstarch, then dive into my plastic bags of goodies. I grab several hand-fulls of nuts and coconut flakes. With a spoon I got from inside the coffee shop, I eat a few tablespoons of coconut oil. The oil is beginning to warm ever so slightly, making it a bit tougher to get down without a slight wince. But, I stomach it, mostly because I know this is what will help fuel my body the rest of the day.  

The ride's toughest climb neared. It's a roughly 600 foot ascent through Jenny Jump State Forest. The scenery is incredible. Once again, time to float on the pedal and turn 'em over. My head and shoulders bob ever so slightly, rocking from side to side as I force the pedals down. The road steepens. I come out of the saddle, each pedal stroke reminding me of a similar motion made by my foot when I run up hills. I feel a sensation that I'm running on the pedals. 

I pull away from the group and reach the summit first. I encounter a secret control point. "So we keep people honest," the guy said. "There's a much flatter route through the park and we want to make sure riders don't avoid the climb." Makes sense to me. I top off my water as Jeremy and Ryan arrive shortly after. There is also a tire pump available, so I make sure my tires are well inflated. I had no idea this might actually have been a mistake, as it was downhill from here, both literally and figuratively. 

Descents are magical. You feel free. But, danger can strike. It did. I took the descent somewhat slow, only around 30 miles per hour, which is considerably less than what I could've gone given the steep grade. Less than a minute into the descent, I hear a "ssssss" coming from one of my tires. I've been lightly breaking the entire time, but start to break even more, attempting to come to a controlled stop. It didn't work. My front tire is gashed, the tube is flat, and the unstable wheel and forward momentum send me over the handlebars. With shoes still clipped into the pedals, my bike follows my body as I tumble forward.

Through some act of luck or skill, or a combination, I emerge from the crash with only a matching cut on my left knee to match the one on the ride. I landed mostly on my left shoulder, which also sustained a cut as did my side, both of which were covered by my long sleeve compression shirt under my cycling jersey. 

I pick up my bike and move to the side of the road. Jeremy and Ryan abruptly stop when they see I crashed. I inspect my bike. Aside from the gash in my front tire, and one of my two water bottles gone (it rolled down the hill somewhere) everything else looks fine. Thankfully, I lost the water bottle with just water and not my fuel. Flashes of Mirinda Carfrae from the 2012 Ironman World Championships came to mind when she lost a bottle of fuel on the bike course. She later bonked and missed her opportunity for a repeat.

The more important issue is where am I going to get a tire? I have a spare tube, but no tire. Same goes for Jeremy and Ryan. Another group of riders slows down when they see us, asking if we're okay. These are the same riders we passed climbing up Schooley's Mountain a few hours before. With all my bad luck thus far, a stroke of good luck. One of the riders has a new tire that he graciously gives to me. Without it, my day would likely be over. 

I finally assemble both the new tire and tube onto the wheel rim. Now, time to inflate with one of my CO2 cartridges. The tire inflates and seems ready to go. I put it back onto the front fork and secure it. Slowly, we resume our descent. But, now I feel (and hear) my tire rubbing against my brake calipers. The noise is a pronounced thud with every revolution of the wheel. I stop again and inspect the tire. Sure enough, there's a small bubble in the tire right near the valve stem. 

Off the bike I go. I deflate the tube then readjust the tire, making sure it sits smoothly along the rim. I use my last CO2 to re-inflate the tire. "This better be it," I thought to myself. It wasn't.

My confidence and speed slowly increase the farther I travel. Once I feel my tire is okay, I turn my attention back to actually riding. 

Twenty-five minutes or so pass and my rear tire seems low. I look down. It's low. I dismount my bike, push down on the tire with my thumb. Sure enough, the tire is losing pressure. There's only one conclusion at this point, I need to change out the rear tube. 

Thankfully it's just the tube, but my motivation is almost entirely gone. I feel deflated, like I'm in a fight and this flat is the knock out punch. In my head I contemplate dropping out. I even say out loud, "I feel like just bagging it." Thanks to an extra CO2 from Ryan and spare tube (and extra assistance) from Jeremy, I fix the wheel. My hands are now covered in chain grease. Some even found its way onto my legs. I didn't really care how I looked though. I'm able to carry on.

We resume riding. The thing pulling me out of my abyss of doubt is knowing I'll see a few friendly faces (my parents) at the top of the upcoming climb up Schooley's Mountain in a few miles. Once again, I attack the climb. Not wanting to break the perfect rhythm produced by each pedal stroke, I focus on maintaining it. I once again leap-frog the group of four riders we must've passed three times by now. Each time, falling back behind them again after something happens. I hope this will be the final pass. I beat everyone up the climb.


The taste of sweet potato is blistful. After a few short bursts out of the saddle to make it up the climb, I saw my Dad's pick-up truck parked on the side of the road at the crest of the hill. Waiting for me in the cooler and bag of goodies is a warm sweet potato in tin foil. I grab for the jar of almond butter and dig myself a heaping scoop. Once again, I scoop of handful of coconut flakes and cashews from the zip lock bag tucked away in my cycling jersey pocket. The pit stock couldn't come at a better time.

Back in my hometown of Long Valley, I draw energy from the familiar roads and landmarks. We pass the historic General Store and the little white house immediately adjacent to it. The sight of both brings back memories of when my family lived there. I wonder if the General Store still sells penny candy, a treat my brother and I probably consumed far too often. Immediately after passing both, we turn right at the wood-carved eagle on the corner of Flocktown Road. I remember back to when the eagle was just a regular, old tree. 

The descent down Schooley's Mountain is fast and fun. I know every turn coming down Naughright Road from driving it on an almost daily basis. It's an entirely different sensation going down the mountain on a bike though. After seriously contemplating dropping out of the ride just a couple hours ago, I'm glad I didn't. This is why I didn't. The adrenaline rush of this is well worth it. 


Lightning strikes again. It isn't me this time, but one of my fellow riders. After the descent down the mountain, the course turns onto a slightly rolling West Mill Road. The cue sheet tells us we'll be on this road for several miles until we get to the next town over, Califon. I figure it's a good opportunity to put my head down and get a few solid intervals in. I pass through a really rough stretch of road. The potholes are like landmines. Once you avoid one, your attention immediately shifts to avoiding the next. "I don't remember this road being so bad," I thought to myself.

I glance back and don't see Ryan and Jeremy. I slow up for several minutes. Nothing. I get nervous. "I hope nothing happened." I stop off on the side of the road and hop off my bike. I call Jeremy. The news isn't good.

Ryan couldn't avoid one of the landmines. On one of the slight downhills he hit a pothole, catapulting him off his bike. "He cracked his helmet and is feeling pretty out of it," Jeremy tells me. "He wants to continue, but I don't think that's a good idea. I'm sure he has a concussion." 

Ryan and Jeremy drop out. Thankfully, this all happened in Long Valley, just a short drive away from my parents house. They graciously pick the two of them up to drive them back to Princeton, since they plan to drive there anyway to meet me at the finish.

I feel conflicting emotions as I continue on solo. My mind drifts off thinking about Ryan's crash, hoping it wasn't too serious and that he'll be okay. Was I somehow to blame because I pushed too hard a pace? As each negative, distracting thought pops into my head, I try to park it somewhere else. I have a solid 60 or so miles left, and I need to focus. This isn't going to be a walk in the park. 

At the same time, I did feel somewhat liberated. I do almost all of my training alone. The isolation is empowering to me. I'm hoping to feed off that mentality the rest of the way. It's now 10 miles to the final rest stop. That's my goal. I don't think about the 40 or so miles after this last opportunity to throw down a few handfuls of real food. 

I make the left turn into the park entrance and coast down a small downhill to the parking area. I notice a few familiar faces waiting to greet me. Before going back to Princeton, my parents, Jeremy, and Ryan welcomed me as I dismounted my bike, hopefully for the final time before the finish. I'm in heaven. I take heaping scoops of almond butter and plop them onto each bite of a banana. I eat more coconut. I grab a handful of individually wrapped pieces of 85% dark chocolate and put them into a ziplock bag, the one that was once filled with nuts and coconut. This is my treat at the end. I stash another banana in my jersey pocket just in case. I contemplate handing off my high-viz reflective vest to my parents because it's taking up valuable room in my pocket. I think twice and keep it just to be safe. The goal is to arrive in Princeton before dark, but my watch reads 5:45PM. That's going to be a tall order. It's doable, but I'd bet on it only on fresher legs.

Sitting on a bench, I struggle to muster the energy to continue. What's the point? My two buddies are out of the ride. All I can think about is how nice it would be to sit here in the sun and continue to stuff my face with food. I've burned well over 10,000 calories by this point. "If I can't make it up this hill, I'm coming back," I joked. The small incline was maybe 25 feet.

I say goodbye to everyone and get back on my bike. I'm ready to go. I feel a renewed sense of urgency and energy. I take it slow down the final big descent to avoid all the potholes. They seemingly fill the entire road. Some patches don't have a clear path anywhere. I ease to a gentle roll through those stretches. 

The final miles are a net downhill. In my head I think I've done all the hard work already. Almost all of the more than 10,000 feet of climbing are behind me. I finally hit some decent road surface, and traffic is almost non-existent. I put my head down, tuck into my aero position, and hammer away. I sense a car slowly moving at my pace. I glance back. It's my parents following me. Before parting ways not too long ago, they said they would follow me for a few miles just to make sure I made it safely through the final rough patches of road. Having a car following me for a few minutes is reassuring. 

Not too long into their following me, they slowly pass me and speed off into the distance. They are going to drop off Ryan and Jeremy. I'm alone again. But this time my head is in a much different place than a couple hours ago. I feel as though I'm just a few miles into the ride, rather than 150. I'm also motivated by the fear of darkness. "I really don't want to ride in the dark again," I thought to myself. Just before leaving the last rest stop, while we were talking about the potential to be finishing in the dark, someone made a comment that I will be riding in the dark when I finish.

Challenge accepted.

It's a very simple mental game. I don't know how many times I've used it before. Our brains our hardwired this way. When someone tells you that you can't do something. You want it even more. Whoever made the comment unknowingly lit a fire under me. It sounds simple, but it's the motivation I draw from for the last 40 miles. 

I ride some of my best miles over that final stretch. The pain in my right knee is getting more apparent. Every pedal stroke it shoots out. It doesn't phase me too much. In fact, some part of me yearns for it. People talk a lot about a runner's high. The rush of endorphins that happens during running, generally after long bouts of chronic, repetitive movement. There's a slight pain aspect as well. I feel that. I feel myself in this euphoric state of flow.

I near the end of my cue sheet so I know I'm getting close. I didn't reach my goal of making it back before dark, but that's okay. Off by only 30 minutes or so. I round a turn and realize I'm just a few hundred meters to the finish. "Holy shit," I say to myself out loud. I enter the same parking lot I left 16 hours and 20 minutes earlier that same day, good for 7th place.

Slowing down, I pump my fist in the air one hard, single time as if to capture everything - everything - that happened over the past 36 hours and say, "you couldn't break me!!"

Bring on the rain. 

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