2022 Arrowhead 135

Riders at the starting line

The Arrowhead 135 is an annual winter ultra at the end of January in International Falls, MN. The race is 135 miles point to point from International Falls to Tower, MN, and racers can choose to bike, run (with or without a kicksled), or ski on the secluded Arrowhead snowmobile trail.

I think everyone has their favorite race/event. For me, it’s Arrowhead. The only other winter ultras I’ve raced so far are the Tuscobia 160 and Actif Epica, but of the three, there’s something about Arrowhead that keeps me wanting to come back. I think it is a combination of the beautiful terrain and profound solitude.

This year, the long range forecast for IFalls was warm and did not improve as race day approached. By the morning of, the temperature at the start promised to be in the single digits with highs and lows in the mid 20s through Tuesday afternoon. My experience is that all temperatures have pros and cons. Mid 20s means racers can generally carry less gear. But sweat is more difficult to manage, and water intake increases. The worst part is snow becomes mushy and slow (with the ideal temperature for snow being somewhere around 0 or less). The combination usually makes for slightly higher finish rates and longer finish times.

I decided many months ago that I wanted to race unsupported and on a fixed gear fat bike. I spent months trying to find the perfect setup that I knew didn’t exist. The final bike including clothing, food, electronics, spare batteries, etc. weighed in around a chunky 60 pounds, and I settled on a 30/19 setup for my gear. This worked well on flat sections of snow, and although I suspected the snow would be much worse later on down the trail, I’d rather push a gear that is too big than be left wanting for more on flats or downhills.

60 lb beast running 30/19 fixed gear setup; needs to lose weight

The first time I raced Arrowhead was 2018. It was my first winter ultra; I was prepared, but I wasn’t smart. I didn’t know how, or didn’t have the clothing, to most efficiently layer and race; I ended up wearing too much and overheating heading into the halfway. Consequently, I stayed the night and waited for my clothing to dry/the temperature to warm (the overnight was -25, and having not experienced lows like this before, playing it safe was the right thing to do). I ended up finishing no worse for the wear in over 36 hours. Since then, I have ridden more ultras and learned a lot more about layering and pacing on snow. My goal this year was to break 30 hours. I figured even if I had to walk significant portions due to hills or snow conditions, this would be possible.

The race has 4 segments that are broken up relatively evenly by mileage and neatly by terrain, the first is flat and 35 miles; the second is hilly and 35 miles; the third is hillier and 40 miles; and the fourth is flat and 25 miles. Overall, depending on the app used to measure it, the climbing comes in around 6,500 feet of gain. My background is in randonneuring, which is long distance and largely self-supported endurance road riding. I’ve found that while strength on the road doesn’t quite translate to strength on the snow – for me at least – , the mental fortitude forged through countless hours of sleep deprivation and various physical and mental suffering does.

I don’t know how other people cope, but my personal strategy is to treat each checkpoint as its own race. I don’t give much thought to the other segments until I get there aside from giving myself the mental boost of, “Only X miles/or X checkpoints to go from there!” I also mentally view Arrowhead as over once I hit Surly (the third checkpoint), since at that point there is only one big hill left followed by flats to the finish. In the race between each checkpoint, I create mini races in my head of multiples/increments of 5 miles to the finish (15, 20, 25, etc); under 10, when I can count down on the GPS in 100ths of miles, I am in the home stretch.

Arrowhead Trail between the start and Checkpoint 1; beautiful as always

The first checkpoint was pretty fast for me, though I started to take a couple of spills on some softer snow on smaller downhills on the final approach. I got to meet a couple people who were riding single speeds and we all wished each other luck. I rode right through the first checkpoint and into the hills. This segment was actually a little easier than I had anticipated until about halfway through when I started having to walk up a lot more hills. I fell into a couple more snowbanks. The one real virtue of temps in the mid 20s is that I didn’t have to worry as much about the snow exposure on my hands or legs, because I warmed up quickly. As always, the last few miles into the halfway were mentally taxing, but I was excited to get to Elephant Lake in the waning daylight, since I had previously only seen it at night. I had run out of water at this point and had to stop for an exorbitant amount of time at the checkpoint to melt three liters of snow. The saving grace was my father-in-law who is more experienced with winter survival had told me ahead of the race that fresh snow does not have to be boiled to be safe for consumption, as I had always assumed. Still, all told, I was stopped for about an hour and a half.

My recollection of the segment between the halfway and Surly was that it wasn’t all that bad or much worse than the first checkpoint to the halfway. This year it was undoubtedly more difficult. There were a couple decent hills in the first few miles that had to be walked, followed by some relatively flat sections that lull you into a false sense of security that the hills are overstated. The hills started in earnest about halfway through the segment, and I began to have to walk up and down the climbs because the snow was so squirrely. By the looks of it, most or all racers also had to walk up, and at least one other was using the strategy of walking downhill so as to not fall over. I honestly don’t believe gears would have helped me here. The last 12 miles took me about 4 hours to cover, which was pretty much the worst case scenario I had been banking on. Around the same time, I was also having heartburn/stomach issues which happens to me sometimes on longer rides, and I basically had to stop eating. Unfortunately, of all the things I packed, I forgot Tums… Finally, I reached the third checkpoint around 4 am, and the race was basically over.

The only tough part left was the climb (or push) up Mt. Wakemup about a mile later. The only bummer about this year as opposed to 2018 (besides the snow) was that I reached this point in the dark and didn’t get to take in the view. The most difficult part of this last stretch was trying to stay awake in the last hours before sunrise. A couple racers caught up to me, and we rode together for a little bit. This gave me enough of a boost to stay up until sunrise, and I finished at 8:08 for an official time of 25:08. Of course, the snow at the end forced me off the bike, so I had to push the bike across the finish line. A fitting end to the race if I do say so myself.

The view from the top of Mt. Wakemup

Closing thoughts

All in all, I have no regrets, though I need to be more confident in my gear choices and pack less, especially on these one day events. I have had my fat bike set up fixed for a long time now, and have had a lot of fun with it in the woods and on the road, including some long distance rides for proof of concept. Arrowhead was a big mental plunge to fully prove that it could work, due to the terrain involved, but I’m glad I did it. I’m convinced that this is a viable setup for riding at least other one-day events. My obsession now turns to creating the lightest setup I can to get as fast as possible; I believe that at least in this race, weight was a bigger factor than lack of cassette. I know I brought too much on the trail, but I still have a tough time balancing the “what-ifs” with the practical or risky. I finished about halfway through the cycling pack (23rd of 47 places), but I would love to improve my time and placement. I don’t know if I’m brave (or stupid) enough to attempt a race like Fat Pursuit or the ITI 350/1000 on a fixie though. Time will tell.

Gear and food

Clothing

Wool pants baselayer

Thermal cycling pants (brand unknown)

Gore Tex shell pants

Sweat wicking short sleeve baselayer

Wool long sleeve baselayer

Wool long sleeve jersey

Forty Below zone vapor barrier vest

Thermal long sleeve baselayer

Windbreaker vest

Windbreaker jacket

Columbia rain jacket

LL Bean down jacket (nanopuff equivalent)

LL Bean expedition down jacket

2 pairs wool socks

2 pair cycling socks

2 pairs turkey bags

Liner gloves

Insulated gloves

Balaclava

Misc gear

Garmin Edge 520

Garmin eTrex 30

GoPro Hero 8

Spot tracker

Battery pack (chunky one, added a lot of weight to be able to record a lot)

Cell phone

4 AAA lithium batteries

4 AA lithium batteries

Pepto bismol

Chapstick

Facetape

Medications

Ski goggles (for snow)

Spare tube

Bike pump

Multi tool

Food

15 Lightlife hot dogs (11 consumed – would have consumed more, but heartburn)

15 Clif block packs (11 consumed – would have consumed all, but caffeine disagreed with me)

5 rice/peanut butter cakes – Feedzone portables (3 consumed, worked okay, need to reconsider)

That’s roughly 4,140 calories consumed on the bike and 480 immediately prior (boston kreme donut and small slice of leftover pizza).

I also drank 6 liters of water in total.

Required gear

-20 sleeping bag (LL bean sleeping bag inside OR bivy all in dry bag on the rack)

Bivy

Foam sleeping pad

Fire starter (magnesium stick/waterproof matches)

Pot (Snowpeak titanium cookset and spork)

Stove (MSR Pocketrocket)

8 oz fuel (2 8oz propane canisters)

Whistle

License/insurance

Insulated water (Revelate Designs Wampak with 3L bladder)

Hand warmers (3 pairs carried)

3000 calories (jar of peanut butter and 2 Clif block packets)

Headlamp (Princeton Tec Apex)

Front and rear flashing red LEDs

Reflective vest

Granogue Mountain Bike Race 2019

PBR is the best thing you’ll have at an aid station.

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to race at Granogue in Delaware. The race is held on private property owned by the DuPont family, and they graciously allow a mountain bike race in the summer and a cross race in the fall every year.

I wanted to do at least one endurance mountain bike race this year before my daughter is born. I missed the Fairhill 50 earlier in the month, so this seemed like the next best thing. The endurance class in this case was basically a “do as many 6 mile laps as you can in 4 hours” kind of deal.

DuPont mansion.

I rode my 2016 Salsa Mukluk, my go-to bike for everything from gravel to snow. I’ve never been fast in the woods on any bike. But this bike is lighter and faster than my old Cannondale Trail bike, and the tires give me more confidence to roll over anything. I haven’t saved the money for a legitimate modern mountain bike, so this is what I’ve got for the foreseeable future. It’s still my favorite bike though, and I never have a bad time on it, even when I’m going slow.

Single track next to a corn field was something new for me.

The course was fast and awesome. It was relatively similar to Ceres Park down the street from where I live, with just a couple short rocky sections thrown in. Unfortunately, at one point when I stopped to let some Cat 1 riders pass me, I ended up jostling my Garmin unit and didn’t realize it had fallen off until a while down the trail. I spent about 20-30 minutes looking for it, but thankfully I found it. This lost time meant that I could only fit in 4 laps, but this turned out to be a good thing for me. I found I didn’t really like riding 6 mile loops over and over.

Magic unicorn of life.

The race was awesome though. The aid station about two miles in had water and PBR and classic rock on the radio. About halfway through, there was a DJ blasting rave music that could be heard for a good two miles of the course. He was so engrossed in it that I don’t think he looked up to see any racers. At the last aid station about a half mile from the finish, there were IPAs and an inflatable unicorn spraying riders with water. There was even a great view from the course of the DuPont mansion. At the end, there was a beer garden for racers and spectators.

Best atmosphere ever for a mountain bike race. I’d recommend it to anyone.

Too small for a lighthouse

Goal Accomplished: Ride All County Roads in Gloucester County

On the Fourth of July this year, I finally accomplished something that’s been a long-term goal for awhile now: ride the entire length of every county road in Gloucester County from my doorstep. I had ridden probably about 50-75% of the roads by the time I started really keeping track last summer. By August 2018, I only needed a handful of roads but was waiting to be able to ride with my friend who also has this on his cycling bucket list.

The roads that were left were really heavily trafficked, so an early Saturday or Sunday or other day with little or no traffic would be necessary to safely ride them. Alas, we were never able to find a good day to ride together, and I wanted to check this one off before my baby is here in a few weeks. So off I went on my own on the morning of the Fourth.

The ride itself was uneventful and exciting. Gloucester County has 410 miles of county roads. This is according to a 2009 map, so I believe more roads have been added. I’ve ridden the ones I’ve found to add to my list. Next up: I’ll most likely try to do the same thing with Salem County roads, the county directly to the south. I’ve ridden a lot of these roads too, but it’ll take a lot longer to finish them off since each ride to grab new roads will most likely be 40-50 miles.

My shoddy digital map I mark up to keep track of the roads I’ve ridden.

Philadelphia Pagoda Pocono 600k on a Fat Bike

Chris gives instructions and warnings to the group ahead of the ride.

May 18 was the PA 600k, the last brevet in the Super Randonneur series. This 600 was new from last year’s. It featured the same amount of climbing – over 19,000 feet, or close to 22,000 feet, depending on which site or app you believe – but, unfortunately, the first 125 miles was flat, with the climbing back loaded on the final 250 miles.

CJ, Ryan, and I riding into the sunrise.

The route started at in Easton, PA and took a mixture of rail trails and rolling roads for about 65 miles to Philly. Unfortunately, the ride started with CJ getting a front pinch flat about an hour or so in. CJ, Ryan, and I got everything fixed quickly and were back on the road in time for sunrise. The remaining distance to Philly included a nice ride by Peace Valley Reservoir and several miles of bike path along Route 202. We had a brush with a ton of traffic on the Germantown Pike before getting back on bike paths, finally ending up on the Schuykill River Trail in Conshohocken. After a quick stop by the art museum where we were treated to donuts and words of encouragement from some Philly friends, we headed back out on the Schuykill River Trail, which we took all the way to Phoenixville.

One of the most perfect dawns I’ve ever seen.

We took a longer stop in Phoenixville, where several other riders caught up with us. Apparently some cops thought my bike was a motorcycle and almost issued a ticket until Paul talked them down. Phew. Never had that happen before.

Cj, Ryan, Paul, and I stuck together for the remaining miles into Reading. The trail turned to gravel, which was pretty awesome, before dumping us back onto paved roads. At the stop, we were greeted by Matt who would have ridden the 600, but, at his own admission, he was too smart to brave it. The stop before Reading marked the end of the relatively flat portion of our ride, and this was Matt’s stomping ground. He knew all too well what was to come.

Sun over Peace Valley Reservoir just after sunrise.
Soaking in the rays.

Leaving Reading was all uphill to the Pagoda, the first big climb of the day. The climb really wasn’t as bad as we feared though, and my legs were still fresh afterwards. From there, it was just over 10 miles to the next Turkey Hill in Fleetwood and about 60 miles to the Turkey Hill in Wind Gap. We ended up stopping at a Wawa about halfway to Wind Gap to restock. We caught up with Steve there and had a dinner stop before setting out close to sunset.

The Pagoda.

The group ended up getting split up when Ryan got a gash in his tire from a piece of glass along a busy road in the dark. Steve kept chugging, while Paul, CJ, and I stayed behind to help/watch Ryan fix his tire. We got back on the road and rolled into Wind Gap after 10 pm. We saw Len Z there, who is always a welcome sight on the PA 600, but usually he is much further in right before the climb up Old Mine Road. Len offered words of encouragement and refreshments and a promise of meeting us again many miles up the road.

Long open stretch of road in an unknown location, PA.

After rolling out of Wind Gap, we started to get sleepier. Even worse, the cues got longer, with two 10+ mile stretches to end the trip to our next stop. The first of those stretches felt like it went on forever, and it was oddly busy for the middle of the night. Len met us again in Canadensis and gave us his five star treatment as always. He even had pie.

The trip to the Mobil in Promised Land was another 10 mile shot, and our legs and minds were pretty weary. Once there, CJ and Ryan wanted to take a bit more time to rest, so Paul and I rolled out together to the “overnight” control in Pocono Village. This basically included a thrilling descent followed by a miserable climb and then potholes gravel roads. We arrived shortly after sunrise, and Ryan and CJ came in only a few minutes after.

Setting out on a new day together.

We waited for them, and the four of us took off together again. At some point, Paul rode on ahead, and Ryan, CJ, and I rode the rest of the way together to Eldred and then Port Jervis. The climb into and out of Port Jervis is always mildly brutal, but the descents definitely make it all worth it. I think we hit 40 mph two or three times without even trying. The way into Port Jervis through Hawks Nest is always pretty heavily trafficked, but also the most beautiful sight of the ride with overlooks several hundred feet above the Delaware River. We stopped to collect ourselves at a diner in Port Jervis and set off through the Delaware Water Gap recreational area.

View of the Lackawaxen from the Roebling Aqueduct.
Random awesome waterfall on the climb up to Eldred.
View of the Delaware from Hawk’s Nest.

The ride through was hot and humid, and I quickly ran out of water. Knowing that Len would be at the base of Old Mine Road kept me going. We finally reached him after about two hours, and he replenished our water and our spirits. The climb up Old Mine Road was not too terrible, but the climb up Millbrook Road promised to be worse. We had already done this climb on the 300 several weeks earlier, and it’s definitely up there with some of the most conscious climbs I’ve ever done. This time, we’d attempt it with over 300 miles in our legs.

The ridge we would be climbing in just a few short miles.

Although I’ve never walked a hill before, I resolved that I would most likely have to on this one with a fully loaded fat bike. I rode until it got too steep and started to walk it. Turns out, walking was actually more difficult. Go figure. I hopped back on and limped my way to the top, and it actually felt easier than on the 300, probably thanks to Len’s hospitality.

Water flowing into the Delaware.

We ended up in Blairstown for a longer stop than I would have liked, and when we rolled out, I started to get really worried about time. We had about 30 hilly miles to the finish and a little less than 3 hours. Our group splintered right after we left due to a flat tire and other issues. I rode solo as hard as I could for awhile and finally caught Paul with about 15 or 20 miles to go. Shortly after that, we saw Ryan coming up behind us. We did several climbs together on Foul Rift and then River Road and finally crossed the bridge to Easton. We finished our ride at just over 39 hours, with a little less than an hour to spare. CJ and Paul came in together just a few minutes later.

This was definitely the hardest 600 I’ve done. I’ve only attempted three, and each had their own challenges. The first one plagued me with saddle sores on the final 200; the second one featured rain and unseasonably cold temperatures for all of day one, and heat stroke conditions on day two; and this one packed a punch with all its hills. Even though I did this on my fat bike, it would have been hard on my road bike.

The most beautiful sign you could ever see.

Overall, after completing the series on fat tires, I’d have to say it was an interesting challenge, though one I wouldn’t eagerly repeat. The 200, 300, and 600 were definitely more difficult than the 400, which had mild climbing and more favorable winds. The bike and gear weighed in fully loaded at 50 lbs, including 2 liters of water on my back. Even though I had slick tires on the bike, the tread was pretty thick, and I was running them with tubes. I’m sure this helped prevent flats, but the rolling resistance seems similar to my knobby tubeless setup. Every pedal stroke seemed to feel like a struggle to keep moving, but I’m sure the weight of the bike, upright position, and Bluto fork didn’t help. I think if I did this again, I’d probably get a pair of Jumbo Jims or a lower rolling resistance snow tire and set it up tubeless.

PA 400k New Blue Redeux

Night riding trials and tribulations.

Last weekend was the Eastern PA Randonneurs New Blue Redeux 400k and the third of four rides in the SR series. I did this ride on my fat bike again, so I’m now only one terrible, terrible ride away from completing the whole series on fat tires.

The forecast for the 400 looked significantly better than the 300 or 200 as far as temperature, wind speed, and wind direction. There was rain in the forecast which was supposed to taper off by the start or shortly into the ride.

I wasn’t completely sold on attempting the full series on the fat bike after the 300 because of how difficult the ride was. After looking at the profile of the 400 though, it was an easy choice. It was basically an extra 65 miles with only an additional 1000-2000 feet of climbing. The 400 this year was a remastered counterclockwise version of our usual route. This year’s route had us starting in Easton, heading north to Wind Gap, then southwest to Palmyra, and generally east to Phoenixville before turning north back to Easton.

We took off at 4 am into a light rain. It was pretty miserable riding for about the first 2-3 hours, but as the sun came up, the rain let up, and we all began to dry off. The worst part was my shoes would not dry off for the rest of the day.

I ended up riding the whole ride with my buddies CJ, Ryan, Nick, and Steve again. It’s always a fun group. These rides can be pretty daunting at times, especially if you’re alone. Riding with friends makes the experience much better, and of course, misery loves company.

We got to ride a lot of rail trails, which was a nice change of pace for these rides. I like getting away from cars, even if it’s just for a few miles.

Highlights of the day include our pizza stop in Palmyra where we were each greeted with a free donut (shoutout to Roma Pizza!), amazing soft serve just down the street from Roma, and The Foodery in Phoenixville where I was able to grab a couple good beers while a hipster with a pink beard tried to convert me.

Fortunately, we had a mild tailwind out and back, so the ride was a lot easier than it could have been. The most difficult part was riding into the night and fighting off sleep. There were a couple times when I thought I might fall asleep on my bike, but music and talking helped keep me upright. We ended up rolling into the finish at about 24 and a half hours.

The 600 is going to be much more difficult. Sufferfest is probably too generous a term for it. At this point, I feel obligated to try, so all I can do is hope for decent weather. The ride is on May 18, so I’ve got about a month to mentally prepare for it at any rate.

Hawk’s Nest 300k…on a fat bike

View from Hawk’s Nest

This past weekend was the Eastern PA Randonneurs Hawks Nest 300k. It was a scenic but difficult ride that demanded more and more from riders as the day went on. Keeping with my goal as mentioned in my previous post, I did this ride on my fat bike.

About 30 of us clipped in to start the ride at 5 am in Easton, PA. I rode with my friends CJ, Nick, and Ryan for the whole ride; they are always great company.

Morning mist

The first half of the ride was really pleasant and included some unfamiliar roads, which was a nice change of pace from some of our old recycled routes.

My memories of these longer rides are always peppered with various images throughout the route. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always make for a great coherent story. We rode through some beautiful vistas at sunrise and in the early morning. We rode down an amazing gravel road heading into Delaware Water Gap. After Water Gap, it was pretty much uphill all the way into New York. This route also featured a little over 10 miles of riding along the Lackawaxen River. This is normally a pretty quiet road, but on this ride, we were dodging runners in an unexpected marathon.

By the time we got to The Corner in Eldred, NY, we had most of the distance and most of the climbing behind us. I should have been worried by how good I felt, but it didn’t sink in until we left the stop that the worst was yet to come. Leaving the stop, we rode straight uphill and straight into the wind. In fact, there would be a headwind the entire way back to Easton.

A few miles past Eldred, we were treated to stunning views of the Delaware from high above. Shortly after this, we turned south down Old Mine Road, which I’m told is one of the oldest continuously used roads in the US. Old Mine Road is infamous to our club’s riders for its pothole filled climb on the approach to Delaware Water Gap. Not only is the road steep, but it forces you to choose your lines as if you were mountain biking. Typically, we’re rewarded with a nice downhill and a right turn onto a rolling road before crossing the Delaware. Not today.

The Lackawaxen River
Crossing the Delaware on the Roebling Aqueduct

On this ride we went left up Millbrook Road instead of right to climb an additional 600 feet up one of the steepest roads I’ve ever ridden. That road was misery. That road stole part of my soul that I will never get back.

View from partway up Millbrook Road

Thankfully from the top of the hill, it was downhill all the way to our next stop in Blairstown. We took a decently long rest to eat and regroup before the final push back to the finish. The final miles were a blur. It was all I could do to even stay awake at this point – about 15 hours of riding after waking up shortly after 2 am. As we walked our bikes across the Delaware into Easton, the finish was only a couple of miles off, and even though there were a few annoying climbs left, it wasn’t too bad. We rolled into the finish at just over 18 hours, 2 hours ahead of the 20 hour cutoff for a 300k. I immediately forgot about how miserable I felt. I was just thankful I got to share the ride with my friends.

Pagoda 200k on a Fat Bike

Fat bike outside the Pagoda

For awhile now, I’ve been thinking about riding not just a 200k, but a full Super Randonneur series on a fat bike. The biggest issue I had was trying to find an appropriate tire. For obvious reasons, most producers of fat tires don’t go out of their way to design a treadless tire for street riding. Surly used to, but they’ve discontinued them as of this year.

I found the Vee Tire Chicanes a few weeks ago, and decided to pull the trigger. The tires are listed as 3.5” and have a tan sidewall as an added bonus. Mounted on 80 mm rims, I think they come out to around 4”. Several test rides showed that the tires are pretty fast rolling; only a couple miles per hour slower than my road bike. I think the upright position of the fat bike is more to blame than anything.

View from Skyline Drive

Yesterday’s Pagoda 200k was the first brevet in the series and also the first test of the tires on a long distance ride. The ride was beautiful and featured 10,000 feet of climbing, which would have made for a difficult day on its own. Unfortunately, we had to deal with a relentless wind for the entire ride. I rode to the first controle about 20 miles in with some old friends, Gavin, Bill, and Matt. I was able to keep up with them, but not without a lot of effort in those conditions.

I let them roll out and took a longer break as I waited for CJ and his crew to come in. We had driven up together, so it made sense to try to ride together. We suffered through ever increasing winds throughout the day, especially riding between exposed fields on the way into and out of Reading.

We got to experience some scenic climbs, including the climb up Skyline Drive to the Pagoda. After this there were several other climbs, but there are only a couple that stick out in my mind as being terrible. Wind was definitely the worst part. But it was good weather, and we didn’t have to deal with any rain, always a plus. CJ and I finished the ride together at just over 12 hours, which is pretty good, all things considered.

Swamp Fox 200k

Sunrise over the ocean.

Pretty much every year, my family vacations in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Last year, I decided to make a 200k route from Myrtle Beach to Charleston to satisfy my monthly R12 requirement.

Most of the long distance rides I do fall under the sport of randonneuring, which is long distance self-supported riding. The rides are called brevets, and the minimum distance is 200 km, or about 124 miles. There are different awards available to members of the overarching organization in the U.S., Randonneurs of the USA, for different accomplishments. One of these awards is for riding a 200k every month for a year, the R12 award. You’re allowed to create your own routes, called permanents, that qualify for award when ridden.

A couple of paved bike paths parallel Route 17, a nice change of pace.

I had ridden to Charleston in the past but only on busy Highway 17. It’s the straightest shot down, but the fast traffic isn’t very enjoyable. I set out to make a more scenic route.

You would think that a coastal South Carolina route would be easy since it’s flat, but this route was anything but easy, to my surprise.

Over the river into Georgetown.
And over the river out of Georgetown…only 70 miles to Charleston by my route!

The route was incredibly beautiful, taking back roads where possible and riding only minimally on Route 17. The roads I found were beautiful and not heavily trafficked. The August heat takes its toll though, and this day was particularly hot. There was nowhere to buy water on the route for about 60 miles in the middle of the route. I had prepared for this by bringing a large water bladder with me, but even with that, I still had to battle dehydration, and the convenience store at about mile 100 was very welcome.

One of many dirt roads in Francis Marion National Park.

Two other factors that made this difficult were the fact that I decided to ride this on a fatbike and that there were tons and tons of bugs around the forest roads in the middle sections of the road. I knew the challenges that come from head and riding the fatbike, but the bugs were completely unanticipated. I’m not really sure what kind of bugs these were, but their bite was as bad as a yellow jacket. I had to keep riding, or they would bite me immediately. Even when I was riding, they would be attacking my legs. I swatted at them to no avail. I rode like this for two hours before returning to Highway 17. The welts stayed with me for a few days though.

The bridge into Charleston is a work of art.

It was still about 10 miles until the convenience store oasis mentioned earlier. Google maps had promised other convenience stores along the way, but to my dismay, they were all closed down long ago. I stopped at a couple spigots along the way to get what water I could.

Charleston was the site of the first battle of the Civil War and is also home to historical sites from the Revolutionary War, so I used this route as an opportunity to visit the historical site of Fort Moultrie. Riding to Charleston from there was a hop, skip, and a jump. Overall a really fun ride but not for the faint of heart!

Moultrie prevented the British from taking Charleston during the Revolutionary War, so we named a fort after him.

Blue Ridge to Bay 1200k

When I first signed up for the Blue Ridge to Bay 1200k, I was unsure of my ability to complete the ride. It just seemed like so much more than I had ever done. Nervous as I was, I dove headfirst into the challenge and made the drive down from NJ the morning of the ride. Naturally, I forgot my water bottles, and even worse, when I went to turn my rack light on as the pre ride meeting was wrapping up, it would not light up. I took the light apart thinking it was just a dead battery, but it turned out to be a broken solder. Luckily, years of randonneuring taught me to keep two backups of everything, so I was able to zip tie another onto my bag but not before the entire group had already left. Such is life.

The W&OD bike path didn’t have any plans to make my day easier however. A few miles in, I realized that my front tire was going flat and had to stop to change the tube. A few miles after that, my rear wheel came out from under me while braking on a downhill hairpin descent, and I scraped up my right knee (luckily the bike was fine, save the bar tape). Riding into Washington was a real treat. I took my time getting pictures of the monuments and of course the Watergate.

This was the best picture I could get of the Watergate. It’s bad, but I had to. “Very new, very modern.” – Richard Nixon – Forrest Gump

Somewhere on the way to the next controle, I caught up with De’Anna and Steve. Some things are a blur – I can’t remember when, but we caught up with Rudi and Emily at some point later in the day. We realized eventually that we were all on our first 1200k. We didn’t know it and didn’t necessarily plan it at this point, but we would be riding together for pretty much the entire ride.

Gettysburg

Day 1 was without a doubt my worst day. The weather was really bumming me out, and a flat tire towards the end of the day in the dark didn’t do anything to improve my mood. I really owe Rudi a lot for cheerfully fixing my flat for me. By the end of the day, I was seriously considering throwing in the towel and withdrawing from the ride. I decided I would get some “sleep” and see how I felt in the morning.

I woke up a couple hours later, resolved to finish the ride I had spent so much time and money on. The five of us left together or around the same time. We bunny hopped back and forth until the climb up Skyline Drive, which had some of the best views on the whole 1200, and then again through Fort Valley until Front Royal. The remaining 60 miles were stormy and mostly ridden together.

Another couple hours of sleep and we were off again. My memories of day 3 are a bit more hazy, but highlights include a feast of a breakfast from McDonalds featuring hotcakes, apple pies, and a sundae; a tortilla chip stop at Chipotle where Rudi accidentally filled his Camelbak with lemonade and then proceeded to spill it all over by not properly fastening the bladder; laying down in the grass outside Wawa with my long anticipated hoagie (yes they are called hoagies) and chips; and getting shown around the route by Emily who was familiar with many of the roads and sights.

Day 4 featured another rear flat and downpours. I remember questioning my life for a bit until I waterproofed myself at a Burger King. The mental game was never too bad because we knew we were on the home stretch the entire day, even though it was a 200k. I also had the luxury of knowing that my PA Rando friends, CJ and James, were waiting at the finish with the promise of a shower and beer.

I’ve always felt that the ride is defined by the people we share it with rather than the conditions we face on the road. I can think of many times I rode through miserable weather or on miserable roads, but as long as you ride with good people, the ride is never as bad as it seems at times. So even though we faced everything from downpours, to cold, to oppressive heat, I will always remember the BRB 1200 for the friends I made and the experiences we shared.

Awards!

Tuscobia 160

The Tuscobia 160 was my second snow race and second qualifying race for the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI 350). Although the terrain was not as challenging as the Arrowhead 135, which I raced at the beginning of 2018, other racers warned that Tuscobia is frequently colder.

This year we all lucked out, and the lowest the temperature got according to my Garmin unit was the low teens. I’d guess the windchill was close to 0 or less overnight. The course was also phenomenal. Most of it was already pretty packed down making for fast riding.

After my experience at Arrowhead, it was my goal to ride my next winter ultra through the night and stop only minimally.

The route is out and back on railroad grade trails in northern Wisconsin with supported checkpoints at about 45, 80, and 115 miles. We were allowed to have drop bags with food and gear at the checkpoints. There was a bonus tent to warm up at about 15 miles to go that was a godsend as well.

The first few miles of the race were extremely fast. Actually, pretty much the whole race was extremely fast except one section a few miles from the halfway that was crowded with 160 mile runners on their return to the finish and only had a single rideable lane.

One of the most difficult parts about winter riding is dialing in your gear for every temperature range. It’s counterintuitive, but one of the biggest issues you might encounter in a winter race is overheating. I made the mistake of wearing too much at Arrowhead heading into the first night. This time, I was dressed better, but I was still sweating a bit too much. I had to back off the pace a little bit to dry off, but I wasn’t too upset.

Somewhere between the first checkpoint and the halfway point, I started to pass the 80 mile riders who were heading in the opposite direction. It was encouraging to hear everyone’s words of support as they passed by. Everyone in these races is so friendly. I got a special shout out from my buddy Hank who was doing the 80 miler as well.

At the halfway, I had a Wawa classic hoagie that I brought all the way from New Jersey. That really hit the spot after hours of granola and trail mix. The volunteers also gave me a couple grilled cheese sandwiches that were also pretty amazing. The sun was just about setting when I made my way back to the trail.

By the time I got to the third checkpoint, my stomach really wasn’t feeling great. I had fallen behind a little bit on food intake and hydration. Nothing I had seemed palatable to me, and all I really wanted was something warm like mashed potatoes or mac and cheese (note to future self…). Unfortunately, the checkpoint was out of vegetarian chilis and soups, so I just refilled my water and pressed on, forcing myself to eat my granola and Raisinets.

Eventually I felt a little better, but fatigue was really starting to set in. I’ve ridden almost 40 hours straight before, but the constant pedaling necessary to bike on snow takes its toll in a way that road biking never could. I had the good sense to get off the bike when I was feeling extra tired and walk for a few minutes. I did end up falling asleep for a split second while standing up on more than one occasion. I listened to dubstep to keep me going.

I was feeling a bit down and out of it by the time I got to the bonus checkpoint at about mile 145. I didn’t realize how close I was to the finish. In my stupor, I thought there were about 30 miles left to go. I think there were three of us in the tent, and we talked sparingly while we drank hot chocolate. One of the racers mentioned that we had 15 to go, and a new wave of energy hit me. I rode as hard as I could for the rest of the race and finished just a little after sunrise for an overall time of just about 25:30. I had hoped initially to come in at 24 hours, but considering the fatigue and food issues I dealt with, this wasn’t bad at all. I can’t wait for the next one.