Sunday, May 26, 2013

Me versus Almanzo

I've been slacking on updating my blog for the past few months, but recent events have inspired me to write again. Namely, Almanzo. Almanzo is a 100 mile gravel road race held in Spring Valley, MN in May. Now there are dozens of great blogs about other experiences of riding Almanzo, but none of them adequately describe MY experience. Noting the differences between what people take from this event, further adds to the beauty. My laptop is out of commission for the time being, so I don't have pics to upload. The other Almanzo war story blogs have much better pics anyway!

Every Almanzo blog will resonate the same tone, that of thanks. Chris Skogen organized one hell of an event, and not a single person left the start line without a ton of admiration and respect for him. There's nothing more I can say about the guy. A true Minnesota ambassador. Except for that damn Red Sox hat he frequently wears!

I'm not a racer. I ride for the joy of riding. My philosophy when it comes to bike events is simple. Have fun, and don't finish last. When I sent off my postcard registration, I took it quite seriously. I knew it would be the single hardest physical challenge I have faced, and not finishing was not an option. I started watching what I ate and exercising regularly (for the first time in my life), trying to shed a few pounds (lost 15 as of this post!). What I didn't do was train. I rode my Surly Troll more often, as that was my weapon of choice. I didn't prepare with long rides like I should have. Prior to the event, my longest ride this year was 20 miles! I usually ride one century per year, and usually have a couple 50+ mile rides in before the day of the 100 miler. Not this year.

The 5 hour, rainy road trip to Spring Valley with friends was great. We talked bikes and bullshit and tried to make a plan for the ride. We picked a place to camp, and set up for the night. We checked into race registration, enjoyed the pasta dinner, and hit the local liquor store for some tent-side nightcaps.

The tent led to poor sleep. I was worried of continuing rain, awakened by animal noises, and the anxiety of what I was about to do finally hit me. I can ride 100 miles. I've done it a few times, it's not intimidating. But to ride 100 miles...on gravel? I questioned myself. Hills too? Self supported? On most of my organized paved road centuries, there are water stops with snacks every 10 miles. Not Almanzo. I knew at mile 40 I could refill, and maybe again at mile 70, but in my mind, that was it. I prepared myself to ride alone, so I brought 4 water bottles, tons of food, and enough spares to ensure safe return. My bike must have weighed 40 pounds at the start line. Yikes!

The start line packed the streets of downtown Spring Valley with over 950 racers, mostly on lightweight road and cyclocross bikes, mostly with 2 water bottles, and very few had large bags attached to their bikes for food and spares. Were these people foolish? Was I foolish? What have I got myself into?! My anxiety rose as Chris spoke and the countdown to the ride began. And then, we're off! The first few miles flew by, the perfect weather, the large groups of man and machine, the birds chirping. It was pure beauty. I settled into a group and quickly got separated from the friends I had intended to ride with. I ran into a couple familiar faces and had some nice at-speed conversations.  I was feeling great and holding a speed much higher than anticipated. My anxiety was gone and my positivity above the day was at its highest.

And then, the hills. Holy shit. These aren't little rolling hills like I'm barely used to, these are mountains in comparison. After the first big hill, I knew exactly what I was up against, and I slowed down. My goal of having fun would be ruined if I suffered too much. My goal of not finishing last was not as big of a concern as just finishing. I settled into my own groove and just rode. I didn't draft, join pacelines, or employ any other tactics that most of the others were. I rode alone. I'd pass others and get passed myself. I'd try to start conversations with others. Those who were receptive, I'd ride alongside for a mile or two before getting separated again. I had a long day ahead of me so I rode in a manner than would allow me to finish. I laughed at all the water bottles ejected in the road. I wondered if someone would be mad about losing the Rapha branded water bottle I saw. I saw a lot of garbage. Lost cue cards, full and empty gel packs, foil wrappers, and other disgusting acts of taking a race too serious.

My mood changed frequently through the day. At my slow pace I was able to look around. I waved to the cows. I said good morning/afternoon to the farmers I'd see. I'd get thrilled to see cheering spectators. I'd get blown away by the pure beauty of Minnesota. Did Chris chose this route for the scenery? Did he chose this hill out purely for torture? I'd stop to look over a little bridge, or cool rock formation. I took a few pictures and stopped to change cue cards and eat a bit. I tried to maintain intervals on when to drink or eat. I learned how to descend...while descending. I walked up a few hills instead of riding, just to look back and see others doing the same. I would look at my cue cards, look at my watch, and try to figure out what time I'd finish. I thought of the giant cheeseburger and a cold beer that I'd inhale after I finished. Never in my mind did the thought occur that I wouldn't finish. That was huge for me.

The only mechanical problem I had was a loose cleat on my right shoe. My bike did great, although my chain was no longer quiet after 70 miles. The lube had been washed off by the rain on the drive down and I forgot to reapply some. Minor inconvenience, and the sound of gravel under my 2.4" tires drowned out the squeaking. My body was feeling good. My knees and quads weren't bothering me. My butt wasn't sore. My hands were starting to ache, but it was to be expected. I wasn't drinking enough, as I'd still have one full bottle at the 40 and 70 mile water stops. Then mile 75 came.

An oasis in Cherry Grove! The chants of "Cold beer!" and "Rot gut whiskey" were heard from a few blocks away and I had hoped it wasn't a hallucination. Sure enough there was a tent with beer, water, soda, chips, and yes, rot gut whiskey. I enjoyed a cold beer and watched a couple riders bypass the stop, and a watched a couple swig off that whiskey bottle. The differences in cyclists that have joined in this adventure added to the experience. From the shave legged, skin suiting wearing, serious roadies, to the hipsters taking smoke breaks, every stereotype was represented. It was beautiful. It was pure Minnesota. It was something I was proud to be a part of.

I pushed through the last 25 miles, which seemed to take forever. I noticed for a minute that I was no longer having fun and came to a stop. I changed my cue card, ate a fig newton and regrouped. When I started back up, I enjoyed the breeze, and quick conversations with others. I was having fun and I was going to finish the Almanzo. Having seen many people drop out of the race along the route, I knew I wouldn't be last. I debated if I'd ride next year or not. I debated why I didn't ride it last year. I was proud of myself for my ability, for both being able to stay positive mentally and to endure physically. I crossed the finish line to the sound of cheering people, got a congratulatory handshake, and ended with a time of 10 hours and 47 minutes, in 718th place. Considering over 1300 registered, and over 950 people started, not bad for me! I was thrilled to have not only finishing the hardest thing I've ever done, but to walk away with a renewed sense of being. My love of Minnesota was renewed. My love for riding was renewed. My belief in positive thinking had paid off, and that giant cheeseburger and cold beer hit the spot.

I am thankful this event exists. I'm very thankful my family supports my cycling. I'm thankful I have friends that say "let's do Almanzo". But most of all I'm thankful for all the memories that I will carry with me after that day. Thanks Chris!