Monday, September 3, 2012

My Taste of Carolina 1200K

I text a message to Facebook - 
29 August - Soon it begins.
If this is Randonneuring then there must be an early start. Since the ride started at 4:00, I set multiples alarms for 3:00 and arranged for a wake up call at the same time. Then I woke up at 2:00 and, after staring at the ceiling for a while, turned off the alarms and canceled the call before they woke up my wife and kids.

They came with me for the trip. We planned to meet up at a couple of the sleep controls. The risk was that their being at the sleep controls would mean that I had a ride in place if for some reason I couldn't continue. Having an easy way out of a tough situation is not always a good thing.

I text a message to Facebook 
- 29 August - 100k. Morning fog finally gone.

The full August moon just cleared the roof line of the Best Western Hotel in Greensboro, NC. The hotel would serve as the start location for the 750 mile ride that would enter Virginia, make a diagonal pass across North Carolina, dip into South Carolina, return to the North Carolina coast, then take a longer path diagonally back to Greensboro. Over 50 riders would start the 3+ day journey. We had 90 hours to finish.

The first 60 miles or so were flat enough to allow the group to mostly stay together. The pace was brisk but not racing. I rode toward the back of the pack taking full advantage of the drafting benefits of the group. I am a clydesdale on a Surly Long Haul Trucker, so I save as a much energy as I can for the 30,000 feet of climbing that lay ahead. 

Morning fog marked the last hours of the night and blurred the transition into day. When the sun shone clear, we were in rolling terrain that would become the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. North Carolina farms bordered our route. Large leaf tobacco, rich green soy fields and brown dessicated corn fields against a backdrop of the distant Mountains.

29 August via Mobile - Climbed into the Blue Ridge MTNs to ride rollers. 
"This is madness". "No, this is SPARTA! (North Carolina)
From mile 72 or so, we start the climb into the Blue Ridge Mountains. On the approach, it looks like we are riding toward a wall. A sustained climb of several miles takes us to the eastern continental divide at an elevation of 2900 feet. Then come "the teeth"- mile after mile after of steep climbs and fast descents. We pass the Blue Ridge Parkway. The climbing separates the larger group into smaller riding packs. The first 400K (250 miles) will bring the majority of the climbing. I settle in and remember that we are just beginning.

29 August via Mobile - Virginia is lumpy and bumpy and has more uphill than down.

Crossing into Virginia brings more of the same terrain. We cross the New River which is one of the oldest rivers in North America. I am reminded of my time at Virginia Tech when the New River was a place to go tubing. 

It seems as if there is very little level ground. We are either going up or down. An ascent that takes 30 minutes is descended in 6 minutes. It doesn't seem to balance out.

29 August via Mobile - Heat + Hills=hard riding

The afternoon adds heat and humidity to the hills. And still we climb. At a lunch stop, I pass up the opportunity for a sit down meal opting for packaged snacks that I can eat on the go. Ride organizer Tony G. recommends that I get something to eat. I tell him I'll be fine - I have food to go.  It dawns on me that I am leaving the stop before the Olsen brothers and Mark Thomas. Each of them have done dozens of grand randonnees. That should have been a clue that sitting and eating was probably a good idea. But in my mind I was being efficient and making up for my late arrival.I just had to get through the first day.

    29 August via Mobile -  Finally out of the hills. Very hard first day.

Shortly after leaving the control, my rear tire starts to bounce and waver. I have a flat. I pull off at a convenience store and pull the tube and the tire. I can't find the leak or anything stuck in the tire. I check and check again and then install a spare tube assuming that the object did not stick in the tire. Then I fill the tube with air and it seems to hold. Back on course.

The 6 mile descent back to the foothills comes at mile 186. I am riding with Vickie from Texas. We hoped to get there in daylight, but miss the mark by a little. After adjusting her headlight, we fly down the side of the mountain descending into the night.

    30 August - Day 1 - 23 hours. Tough course.

We rejoin Patrick and Byron for the miles that will take us to Greensboro, seeking safety in numbers. The leveling course and the proximity of the control increases our speed. We get back to Greensboro about 23 hours after we first departed. 

30 August via Mobile - 1.5 hours of sleep is over in an eyeblink.

Our planned 5:45 am departure gives me 1.5 hours to sleep. When I wake, I check the rear tire. It seems soft. I have a brand new tire and a new tubes RIGHT THERE in the hotel room with me but decide that if the tube held air for the whole ride home, the hand pump must have just under inflated it. So I use my floor pump to get it up to the right pressure and go out to restart the ride. I save maybe five minutes by not changing the tire and tube right then and there. Maybe five whole minutes. 
    30 August via Mobile - Crawled up the Uwharrie mtns and sored‎ . Leap frogging with Patrick, Maile and others. Discovered a slow leak has been dogging me since yesterday afternoon. Will swap tire soon then off to the beach.( "Soared down" freudian slip)
The Uwharrie Mountains are an ancient mountain range that were once over 20,000 feet tall. We start our day climbing the remnants of the once colossal peaks.

As the morning progresses, I find myself falling off the back of the group. While this alone is not unusual, it seems that it is happening faster and with more of a struggle than it should. I catch up with a group at the next control. My rear tire is half flat again and its happened even faster than last night. I pull the tube and take it into the restroom. In a sink clogged with toilet paper, I find the trickling bubble of a slow leak. I blame myself for not swapping the tire out when I had the chance. Checking the tire again, it now seems old and worn. I run my fingers along the inside looking for anything sharp or pointy. Nothing. I find two nicks in the tire and they are in about the right place for the leak, so after making sure nothing is in them, I cover them with folded bills and then install one of my two spare tubes. Tony G. arrives. He has a floor pump. He uses it to get the tire back to the proper pressure. Then I am off.

The new tube leaks faster than the last two. Only a few hours later, my tire barely has air. I am still a long way from Laurinburg where I have a new tire and tubes. 

The Olsen brothers are behind me. The Olsen brothers approach a 1200K like a vacation. Instead of chasing a minimal completion time, they eat, they sleep and then they ride quickly and efficiently. They enjoy the trip. With this approach Bill has completed 25 1200k's including three this summer. After a brief talk, I refill the tire and plan to meet them at a store a short way ahead. 

At the store, I pull the tube and tire again and Mark gives it a thorough look. After turning the tire inside out, he finds a tiny shard of glass stuck in the casing. I install a new tube, he loans me another and then we take off. I ride with them for a while, but when it's clear that the tire is holding air they accelerate toward the control.
 30 August - The slow leak has been a persistent burden. Pedaling an ever softening tire over hundreds of miles of hills has cooked my legs, sapped what little speed I have, and cost me lots of time. Mark Olsen finally found the culprit for me - after I checked twice and went through three tubes. It was tiny sharp shard of glass. Recovering and continuing is going to be a challenge.

I arrive in Laurinburg an hour before the controle closes, tired and hungry, having rushed through food stops to make up lost time. I have been eating pre-packaged food and drinking liquid calories. I need something substantial. Most riders plan a short stop for Laurinburg. They will sleep when they get to the coast. The next control is 100k away over a flat course.  I am confident that with food and a little rest I can make the trip with time to spare. 

At 10:30 pm, I leave the comfort of the hotel and set off for South Carolina. This time I have a new rear tire, two good tubes and 2 hours sleep but I am facing an all night solo ride.

The NJ Randonneurs stage night time brevets. With them, I have ridden a 600K that started at 10 pm and a 200K that started at the same time. I call on that experience now. I have done this before, a different time, a different place, but I know I can ride all night.

Nothing is open along the route. With the one exception of soda vending machines outside a Piggly Wiggly, all my food and water come from what I brought with me. My dinner fuels the first half of the ride and packaged snack food the rest.

The moon is bright and full. Under its diaphanous light, the surrounding fields turn into a surreal landscape of grays and blacks. It is both familiar and alien at once. This dreamlike setting has a nighmarish undertone. Dogs. Guard dogs. Guard dogs that spend their days sprawled and panting in yard kennels but are released at night to protect the property. Apparently a person on a bicycle in the middle of the night is a serious threat to property. At random, frequent intervals, shadowy outlines of barking snarling dogs, come charging out of the darkness full speed ahead.

This is a first for me. In PA and NJ, dogs rarely leave the confines of their property much less chase people passing on bikes.  These dogs did not stop at the property line, they ran into the road, flanked me on both sides and put the fear of dog into me. I felt like prey.

I made good time to South Carolina setting close to a personal best for the distance.

31 August  -  Sitting down in South Carolina with a cup of coffee after spending the last 4 hours riding 100K under a full august moon while being kept wide awake by frequent and random snarling dogs chasing me from the darkness. But I'm still moving forward.
I spent extra time at the store control in South Carolina, mostly waiting for the night to end. Faster riders came and left - they were on their way BACK to Laurinburg after having already reaching the coast. When they reported that there were a few more dogs between here and the coast, I sipped more slowly. Then an hour or so before dawn, I resumed the trip east, on route to the rising sun.

    31 August  via Mobile - Sunset Beach, NC - blue skies, seagulls and calm winds. 
A beautiful morning.

Though I saw many riders returning from the coast as I approached, several were still there when I arrived. In fact, the Olsens, who left Laurinburg before me, were still asleep. I ate and chatted with Maria, a volunteer. She explained the dog situation from her knowledge as a local. Apparently, a Cesar Millan calm and a firm "bad dog!" was all it takes to get the dogs to behave. Uh OK.

I passed on taking a nap and got back on the bike. I figured that if I got started now I could reverse the trip and be back in Laurinburg before nightfall. No problem. I even stopped by the beach to take pictures.

Plus, I needed to stop at a drug store. Sitting on the saddle was getting downright uncomfortable.

Back in South Carolina, I saw the Olsen Brothers. When I mentioned that we should be back in Laurinburg before dark, Mark told me that we would not be going back the way we came in. The route back was longer. Oh no. I had not looked at the cue sheet in detail. There were additional controles. Because I started from Laurinburg instead of the beach, Day 2 would take even longer than day one. And I was having a hard time finding a way to sit on the saddle that allowed me to pedal. 

I had saddle sores. Sitting caused painful pressure. Every time I stood, it felt like a thin layer of flesh pulled away. Every single time. I was still half a day away from Laurinburg. Soon it would be dark and the dogs would be back.

Tony G. met me at a controle. I was standing there, sweaty, aching and hungry when he just appeared at my shoulder. I ordered. We sat and talked about maintaining a pace that would allow me to finish. He shared some stories about hard rides he had done. He filled my water bottles then packed half my lunch into sandwich bags and the next thing I knew I was back on the bike on a pace to make the next control. 

The trip back to Laurinburg tested me. It used every mental trick I know and made up a few along the way to just keep pedaling. Through it all I received messages of encouragement from my friends. I arrived 27 hours after I left. The only thing I want to say about that experience is this message that I sent to my wife and  friends on Facebook after I arrived:

Poor logistics caused me spend too much time in the saddle. The expression blood sweat and tears has all new meaning. Only 200k left but I'm going to need some doctoring to finish. Thank all of you so much for your messages. They have been more helpful than I can ever express.

I would have to ride 200k to finish. My friend Katie once said to me during a 600K - "there's only 200K left, you can do that." That line has become a go to line for me ever since. But there was no way I could get back on the bike without bandages. Tony had recommended that I head out by 5:00. I needed to sleep. I needed to eat. I needed medical attention. I decided to sleep and eat and get bandages. If I left at 7:00 I would have more than 15 hours to finish. If I can ride a 200K, I can certainly do it in less time than that. I gave my wife a list of supplies to get from a drugstore, then I ate and went to sleep.
 September 1 via Mobile
    Bandages, food and sleep does a body good. Less than 100K to go.
    Saturday via Mobile
    At the penultimate control - a roaming storm looks like it may settle here. 
The last 47 miles may come with a light and sound show. Pedal pedal.
Rain fell. Heavy drops from a thick dark cloud washed the sweat from my face and cooled my sun baked back. I turned my face up to the sky and tasted the rain on my tongue. The temperature dropped as the cloud passed. The air seemed scrubbed clean. The bandages held. I could sit and I could ride. The rolling hills of the Uwharrie flew beneath my wheels. This is a 200K - I can do that. I am a Randonneur.

At the finish, I arrived to a fantastic welcome. The spirit of camaraderie that is a hallmark of this sport was on full display. Despite the fact that it was hours after they had finished, Randonneurs from across the country, many of whom I only met briefly during the ride offered me warm handshakes and cold beer. That memory will last far longer than the discomfort I endured to get there. 

Text message September 1
And so it ends. Thanks to family and friends - old and new - I successfully completed the Taste of Carolina 1200K. The experience of riding 750 miles in less than 90 hours over a very challenging course was far more than I expected. I am both humbled by and thankful for all of you who shared kind wishes, good thoughts and your concern. Because of that, although I may have ridden the vast majority of it solo, I was never alone. I shall now commence to celebrate with the drinking of cold beer.

Part three is on youtube
Post Script:

The people of North Carolina were some of the friendliest I have encountered as a bicyclist. They gave us room on the road and were polite and friendly at the controles. The road selection for the course was fantastic. Great views, low traffic, scenic and challenging. Tony and his volunteers seemed to be everywhere all the time. The ride was very well run. If you are looking for a challenging but fair 1200k the Taste of Carolina is well worth sampling. Plus it turns out that the dogs do, in fact turn back with a firm "Bad DOG!" at least most of them do.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for all the support throughout.

  2. I don't know what to say: congrats, wow, astonishing, good job, awesome, amazing, great write up, how the %*#;!? did you do that ... none of them work or suffice. It's true, I can't even imagine, can't begin to. Inspiring. Glad you found bandages that did the trick. Glad you didn't fall asleep at the handlebars, glad you found food ... glad you succeeded!! Chapeau!!!

    1. Thanks Suze. And I look forward to reading about your upcoming trip.

  3. Wow! I WILL conquer the SR and and a Grand Randonnee. They must be checked off of my bucket list. I will refer to this post while planning the events. Congratulations.

    1. Mike,

      This is more a list of mistakes than a reference but if it helps you prepare then that is great. A grand Randonnee is a different animal than a 200K, but I have no doubt that you can do it.

  4. Nigel, I'm misty eyed reading your write up. I was there the entire time. Congratulations my friend, I can not wait to hear all about the adventure.

    1. Yes you were Katie. I will never forget checking my blackberry at midnignt to confirm my location on the way back to Laurinburg and seeing a message you had sent minutes before and then the messages from the other NJ Randos. Thanks is not big enough of a word.

  5. I loved re-living the ride through the report. Well, except the parts about saddle sores. Everyone complained about saddle sores, and for me, I think this was the worst I've had it. Must have been the humidity. Some of the details come back so vividly through your writeup and photos. You were quite talked about on the ride, btw; folks on the ride were really rooting for you. And you neglected the hero's welcome you got when you rolled in, folks gathering and shaking hands, patting you on the back, offering you beer! I didn't get no stinkin' beer! You have no idea how incredibly happy I was to see you criss-crossing paths. I was like a proud mama when you rolled in. Fantastic job, Nigel! We've got to get together one of these good years and compare dog stories. Good for hill and sprint training, let me tell you!

    1. PatCH, You are right about the welcome and I have added that important detail to the report, check out the almost last paragraph.

      It was absolutely a pleasure to share the experience with you. Your great attitude under tough conditions made everything a little more fun.

      And yes, the dogs will be remembered. I now know that a pit bull gets dropped only at about 24 mph. Good motivation to train indeed.

  6. Congrats on the ride, Nigel. I am always more impressed by the people that come with little time margin than I am with people that finish in 67 hours.

    I think most dogs will stop if you yell, "NO!" at them, but I never remember to do that. I got tired of their B.S. and started telling them, "puppy, I am tired of your bull----" That seems to work pretty well.

    1. Eric, that would have been quite the sight. Sorry I missed it. And congrats to you as well.

  7. Awesome ride ... awesome report! I was on the edge of my seat wondering if you were going to finish on time. Congratulations! :)

    1. Thanks Roy, I appreciate your reading this blog, you have just about earned yourself an Iron Rider shirt.

  8. congratulations Nigel on a successful first GR; well done my friend!

    1. Thanks Rex, it was great to see you at the start. Looking forward to hearing about your ride.

  9. What Rick said... BIG congrats to you, and enjoyed the writeup!!!

    1. Thanks MG! From your blog it looks like you had a good taste of the Blue Ride Mountains yourself. And thanks for the encouragement along the way.

  10. Congratulations Nigel. Great report. I've got a word of advice for you--Lantiseptic. Order it at a drug store. Carry the 4oz tube with you on the bike and apply it freely to any skin surface that hurts. Use on saddle area from start to end. I've been using it for 10 yrs and have yet to have my first saddle sore.

    Once again Congratulations!

    1. Thanks for the comment and the tip. I've also heard from others that that is the thing to use, so I will give it a try.

    2. WHAT?

      I feel so...responsible. I thought that I had surely spread the Gospel of Lantiseptic to you.


    3. Bill - The responsibility is mine. As they say, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. You and others did tell me but I thought I had it figured out.

  11. Congratulations! You set a tough goal, trained hard, and met the goal. Your journey was difficult. You did well. Major props for your supportive spouse.

    (Old) Joe

    1. Thank Joe,
      My wife deserves major props indeed. Not only did she put up with the training, and the crazy short sleep breaks during the ride itself, she did the bandaging that got me through it and then drove us all home after all was said and done. Wouldn't have been possible without her.

  12. Great ride report and pictures. Enough to make me want to do it! (maybe...)

  13. Loved your write up. It was a privilege volunteering for you and the other riders this year. I hope to do some PA brevets soon.

    Phil from South Carolina

    1. Thanks Phil, hope you make it up. We have some nice rides up here.