Race Priority: A
Race Execution: B+
- About the race: The Spotted Horse Gravel Ultra is a new gravel race to central Iowa, created by ultra cyclist Sarah Cooper. It starts and finishes near St. Charles, and covers some extremely scenic rural roads, including some rather interesting “B” roads (unmaintained dirt/mud roads). For 2016, Sarah offered both a 200 mile course and a 150 mile “sprint” course. 🙂
- What went well: Sometimes you take risks and they pay off, other times they don’t. I was fortunate that although I went out very hard early, I was able to recover and hold a higher level of intensity than I expected, with only minimal fade at the very end of the race. I planned and executed the race based on only one stop (Afton, IA), which worked well in minimizing non-moving time.
- What I could have done better: I made a bad decision on fueling in hours six and seven, which caused my stomach to get bloated and shut down for the last hour and a half left in the race.
- What I learned: I was shocked at how aggressive the first hour was, particularly for people doing the 200 mile race. There were some fantastic people riding, volunteering and cheering/spectating… what a great community! Trading a bit of threshold power for specific endurance in my training worked well to flatten out my fatigue curve, allowing me to hold higher intensities than anticipated. I need a better system for managing / monitoring calories for these longer events.
- Results: 1st place finisher of the 150 mile course, with an official time of 10:04:00.
- Breakfast: Honey Stinger Waffle (160 cals), two Kind bars (190 cals each).
- Hours 1 – 5, each hour: 260 – 270 cals/hr from a hammer gel (90) (or Roctane 100), 1/2 waffle (80) and CarboPro (100).
- Hours 6 – 7: 340 – 350 cals, CarboPro (170), hammer gel (90) or Roctane (100), 1/2 waffle (80). Ouch… more calories than my gut would process at my racing intensity.
- Hour 8: 180 cals, 1/2 waffle (80) and CarboPro (100). At 8:30 my stomach bloated and beyond that I only took of couple of sips of CP for the last hour and a half of the race.
- Note: My original plan was to alternate gels / waffles each hour after Afton, assuming I’d be consuming closer to 200 cals/hour. I felt like I wasn’t drinking that much, and couldn’t tell as I was drinking from my backpack hydration system. I was close to being on schedule for CP, sending me over what my stomach could handle at that point in the race.
Weather conditions: Based on my Garmin data, we started around 57 degrees, saw a low of 52, and a high of 75 degrees. The winds varied from 7 to 10 mph from the SW most of the day. It was a fantastic day for a long ride.
Race Report Commentary:
Hours 1 & 2: The start of something crazy…
“Holy _______ … are you _______ kidding me?”, I think to myself… (insert your words of choice in the blanks)
I’m about 25 minutes into the race and my Normalized Power (NP) is at 284 watts, with a Functional Threshold Power (FTP) of 273w. For those not into bike geek speak… I was riding well into “red line” intensity, and operating on borrowed time. If I didn’t back off soon, I was looking at either a very long day (slogfest) or a short day (DNF)…
This was my first gravel race, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I had put in some solid and focused training for the event, and had created a fairly detailed power and nutrition plan. I felt reasonably confident in my fitness, and anticipated a total race time of 10:30 – 12:00, depending on the course conditions. Although I had practiced B roads leading up to the event, I had minimal experience in riding them when it was dark. I decided that it would be smart to follow someone I knew through the first B road at around 19 miles.
We all lined up and at 6 am headed out at a relatively easy pace for the first mile on asphalt, on the neutral rollout. As we turned on the first gravel road south, and the race officially started… my strategy of following Luke Wilson was squashed in the first 100 yards as he dropped the hammer and rode away like I was standing still. I saw Steve Fuller and latched on his back wheel, holding on for dear life. I’m thinking “this is LONG race and I’m starting it like it’s the Elkhart Time Trial“. I considered following Joe Mann, but he had to stop to work on one of his storage bags. I briefly took the lead to try to give Steve a little help, but it was short lived… we were just too close (or over) my threshold for me to hang out there long. Hour one goes by… NP is at 266w, HR average at 157 (LTHR = 162), and my target for the hour was 220w / HR 141… not quite as planned.
We turned onto the B road, and Steve was still flying. I fell back and two other riders passed and followed Steve. My front wheel slipped in a little mud trying to get out of a tire track and I almost lost it.. the guy behind me yelled “nice save”. I decided I had to back off and let them ride away. I found an easier pace and the guy behind me passed, putting me into 7th overall (of both 150 and 200 mile riders). I was happy to get off the first B road in one piece. I settled into a slightly easier pace trying to recover a bit, wondering how much damage I had done to myself. I gradually caught the guy who had passed me on the B road, and his name was Larry Fitz. Larry dropped in behind me and we continued on as I wondered how I was going to survive the rest of this race. In spite of slowing down a bit, I finished hour 2 at 251w NP, 152 average HR, with a target of 216/139.
Hours 3 – 4.5: Houston, we’ve got a problem…
“What the hell were you thinking… you signed up for a race that will take you somewhere between 10.5 and 12 hours, and 2 hours into this race and you are running over 90% intensity? This isn’t going to end well and it will be a spectacular implosion. You have earned a long sentence in the land of suck for your stupidity, to be served later today.”
Some people utilize positive self talk… me, not so much. I had to face the reality that I was definitely riding on the edge (or over) in terms of power, and that also meant I was burning calories at a higher rate putting my nutrition plan in jeopardy as well. I decide to simply find something that feels “uncomfortably maintainable” in terms of power. This settled out to be 210-220w NP and a HR around 143. Larry Fitz settled in behind me, and Joe Mann caught up to us. As Joe passed me, I jumped on his wheel to get a little reprieve. Mickey Boianoff passed the three of us and rode up ahead. After a few miles I finally felt a little better and I took the lead for a little while. Joe is definitely stronger, and quickly took the lead again. After a few more miles we caught Mickey, and the four of us rode together for the next 2 1/2 hours.
This was really one of the best parts of the ride for me. I had the chance to recover a bit, have some good conversation, and learn along the way. I watched how everyone rolled through checkpoint #1, and got to follow the others through the B roads to watch their lines. It wasn’t completely uneventful. I nearly went down on the B road just south of Hopeville, in a big muddy rut. As I pondered walking my mud laden bike up the following hill, Eric Roccesecca was there taking pictures… just the motivation needed to hop back on and grind up the hill.
Overall, we maintained a good steady power output, and I could feel my body recovering slightly as I got a chance to do some drafting. The three things that stuck in my mind were that Joe Mann should be called Joe Machine, as he was doing most of the pulling. When one of us would try to lead, he’d pull back in front after a couple of minutes. Larry was so impressive… he was in the 65+ age group, and so strong. He seemed to just bound up the hills. And Mickey was riding a fixed gear bike. Really. We are up and down these hills, and I’m shifting all over… wishing I had more gears. He’s doing it all with one.
I was planning to stop at Afton to refill my water, and mix up my remaining CarboPro. As we got closer to town, I was feeling better. I decided to push the flat area before one of the hills and let my momentum carry me up. I was getting tired of grinding up… I just don’t have the legs for that approach (a.k.a. chicken legs). I pulled ahead of everyone, and expected them to catch up as I recovered. They didn’t, so I decided to press on with the thought that if I could get to Afton a little early, it would help so we weren’t all standing in line waiting to check out. I rolled into the convenience store just as Steve Fuller was leaving. I hit the bathroom and grabbed water and ended up standing in line for what felt like an eternity, behind people buying their lunch. I mixed up my nutrition and started resetting my Garmin. Everyone else was in an out, and pulled away as I was trying to figure out how to reset my navigation for the second part of the course (rookie mistake). By the time I pulled away, I had spent a little over 10 minutes in the store, and the other guys were far enough ahead I couldn’t see them as I left the parking lot. My NP average was 233w at this point, and average HR was 147. I was still quite a bit above plan, but feeling much better. I took my first shot of caffeine via a Roctane GU.
Hours 4.5 – 8.5: Gotta go…
“This is your race to lose. You have to go NOW!“
This is about as positive as my self talk gets. The good news is that the caffeine kicked in relatively quickly (I don’t normally consume it) and I got a noticeable boost of energy. Within a couple of miles I caught the other guys, and then passed them. I thought maybe they’d jump on my wheel, but they didn’t… so I was on my own for the rest of the race. I no longer got any help drafting and I lost the chance for conversation, but I could also focus more on areas where I think I’d be faster (flats, slight down/uphills… areas more like TT riding background).
I got to checkpoint #2, and was confident I was 6th overall (out of both races). I believed that the racers in front of me were all doing the 200, but didn’t know for sure. I “simply” needed to pick it up and either catch anyone in front of me, or distance myself from those behind me. At this point I was “riding scared” as Joe Robinson would say. That’s not a bad thing… fear can be a bigger motivator than rewards at times, and I didn’t want to squander a lead if I had it. I focused on kicking my power up generally in the 220+ range, and simply reminding myself (a lot) that this was my race to lose.
Over the next four hours, it was basically a blur of hills in my mind. One standout section was 290th street (B Road) for which I have a love / hate relationship. It’s sort of scenic, certainly interesting… but the hills just seem to go on forever. There is a brief reprieve to go into Orient, and then the route brings your back toward the east to ride the rest of 290th.
After mentally celebrating completing 290th, my excitement was dashed when I saw another rider up the road in front of me heading north. I reasoned that one of the riders that I thought was doing the 200 must have been doing the 150… and that I’d probably never catch them (my oh-so-positive state of mind at the time). But after a bit, I could see I was gaining and after a couple of miles I could see them stopped at an intersection looking at cue cards. I realized it was Mickey. Since he didn’t pass me, I had guessed he had made a wrong turn. We had a brief conversation about the turn off of 290th, and he headed back to do the Orient loop… it sucks to add miles to an already long race.
At hours 6 and 7 I had my nutritional error. In a nutshell, I decided that since I was burning more calories than planned (riding at higher wattage / intensity) that I’d continue to take in both 1/2 waffle and GU every hour, while also taking in CarboPro from my backpack hydration system. The problem is that I couldn’t gauge how much I was drinking… and it just “felt” like I wasn’t drinking that much because I was feeling pretty dry. With the temperature rising, I was in fact drinking more, leading to ingesting more calories than my stomach would absorb at that intensity. Excess carbs leads to bloating, and then things get ugly. I thought at the time it was simply that I didn’t have enough fluids, and the concentration of carbs was too high for good absorption… so I threw gasoline on the fire by downing 1/2 a bottle of CarboPro when my backback ran dry at about 8:30 into the race. That was pretty much the end of me consuming anything.
Through 8.5 hours my NP average was 225w, average HR was 146, and my HR drift was around 5.6%.
Hours 8.5 – 10: The land of suck…
“Maybe it would be better if I just threw up on the side of the road…”
My stomach was distended to the point where my legs were hitting my gut when I was riding aero. I was tired, hurt all over… but frankly, I was still feeling way better than I expected based on my aggressive start. My power was dropping a bit, but I kept reminding myself that someone was probably just back on the turn behind me, and I needed to embrace the suck and continue to push.
After doing the last big climb I felt like I had little left in the tank. I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for over an hour, and fatigue was setting in. As I climbed the hill before turning back to the east again, Cujo the German Shepard decided come out and chase me up the hill at a full sprint. As spent as I was… adrenaline won out and I set my peak power for the day on that little hill. I actually thought to myself as it was snapping at my calves that they may look like chicken… but don’t really taste like chicken.
As I came down the last hill, I could see the finish line to the north… it was a welcome sight. Sarah and Jenn were there waiting, and Sarah was painting the line on the road as I came up. I was pleased to hear that I was the first finisher, we took some pictures, and I meandered my way back to the ranch to the finish area. After a shower and a little food… a lot of sitting (4 hours actually) I finally felt well enough to make the trip home. All in all it was a fantastic day… a beautiful course, great weather, fantastic volunteers, great competitors and a better-than-expected finish… what more could you ask for?
In the end, my NP average was 222w, my HR average was 145, and my HR drift was 8.4% (a lot of drift in the last 1.5 hours). My Garmin data for those interested is located here.