Exhausted. Drained. Spent. There are no end to the list of adjectives that come to mind right now. I just got home after completing a grueling 63 mile bike ride- the Gran Fondo Philadelphia. This was the most physically demanding thing I have ever had to do in my life- by miles (literally).
My normal sleep habits prevent me from going to bed much before midnight, and so 5 hours later when my alarm went off, the day had begun. I hopped in the shower, got dressed in my new bike gear, and dutifully ate a Snickers Marathon bar the event organizers gave us in our “goodie bag”, which contained obscenely high percentages of the daily value in numerous nutrition categories. I downed it with some water & headed for the start. I biked down to the staging area- about 3 miles away- to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I stretched out a little bit, checked out the sights and sounds, and wondered how unprepared I was.
For starters, I didn’t see anyone else with a bike that cost less than $1,000, and everyone had snap-in shoes- something that a bike shop had recommended to me (the idea of having your feet snapped in, is that makes each rotation more efficient- not only do you get the downward force of pushing the pedals, but also the upward pull). Also, the last time I had biked 60+ miles was a good 10 years ago on a summer afternoon when I had nothing better to do.
15 minutes out from the start I had Gatorade Prime, step 1 of their new 3 part system.
At 7:00 sharp the race began with a Ferrari pace car leading the way. We headed down the Parkway & circled Logan Circle. I let the cheering fans get the best of me, and even though I promised myself I wouldn’t, I went out strong, quickly advancing toward the front of the pack as we headed back up the parkway and down kelly drive. Things were going good until about mile 8, just after our first climb when I jumped my chain. I tried to fix it on the fly, but eventually had to pull over to correct it. It only took 30 seconds, but in that time about 50 riders passed me by. It was at this point that I noticed a kid that looked no older than 12 going strong with a group of adult riders, I was very impressed by him and would see him throughout the race.
By the time we hit 20 miles I was making good time, but the hills were starting to fatigue me. There was a lot of climbing going on that was draining my quads, and right on cue, at mile 26 my legs began to cramp up for the first time on a short climb towards Valley Forge State Park. I had to get off my bike- something I hadn’t wanted to do, and tried to deal with the cramps. Immediately they got worse from standing, and I had to do squats for a minute and then began to walk. 3/4 of the way up I was able to get back on my bike. A lot of riders encouraged me to work it out, and I made it to the top. I was very nervous though about the fact that I was getting cramps and we weren’t even 1/2 way through the course.
King of the Mountain
From Valley Forge on things only got worse. First we had a long steep climb that made more than a few people pull into driveways, temporarily resting their legs, before circling back to the road. I did the same a few times. It was a heck of a climb. Then around mile 32 the “King/Queen of the Mountain” challenge began. It was a mile long climb over a 7% grade and it decimated the field. My legs were killing me and I had to stop several times. I saw one guy puking into the grass and I encouraged him as I continued. Eventually I began to hear cheering and saw one of many people we would see along the way, encouraging us. I could see the ground leveling off and I pushed hard to get there. Unfortunately it turned out we were only 1/2 mile in. What a mental hurdle to get past knowing there was still another 1/2 mile to go.
By this time I had resorted to the strategy of biking right to left across the road to reduce the amount of power required from a straight climb. Several folks did this and I was shocked when cresting the summit a spectator instructed me to “ride in a straight line because people were coming up behind me”. I was incredulous. This man who was sitting on his butt watching people exert all their physical and mental energy to climb the mountain had the gall to chastise a rider in an amateur ride, rather than being encouraging. Absolutely amazing. I wanted to yell at him but I didn’t- I just didn’t have the energy.
The Last Half
Based on the shocking amount of vertical encountered by this point in the ride, I was hopeful that the rest of the trip would be more kind. I would soon learn nothing was further from the truth. At this point, more than a few riders got off their bikes and were walking steep inclines, and I felt better about having to get off my bike. I have to say though, there were a number of riders whom I had absolute respect for. It was amazing that this far into the course, there were still those charging up the hills and just refusing to get off the bike. The one good thing about all the elevation though, were the downhills. For every climb, there was eventually a downhill. To get an idea of how steep some of the descents were, I was able to top out at 38.5 mph on one downhill section.
By the time we hit about 45 miles, there was a series of long steep climbs. Lots of people were complaining about the people who came up with the course- it was definitely seemed professional grade, and a good many riders were amateurs. Some like me, were out on a ride like this for the first time. At this point in the ride, even small inclines felt like mountains, burning every muscle in my legs, and forcing me to walk a lot. The vertical was just incredible and it didn’t stop in earnest until about mile 57.
As we neared Philly the course started to level out, and I was able to power through the relatively flat sections, making up for lost time. At the beginning of the day I was hoping to finish the ride under 6 hours- and thats before I discovered it was a series of long climbs/descents- absolutely nothing like the 45 mile trek I had made with ease some months ago from Philly to Betzwood and back.
About a mile out from the finish line we were on the West River Drive and I thought I would cruise to the finish, except the organizers had one more challenge to throw at us. There was a final climb up towards Fairmount Park that had it not come after 62 grueling miles of hills, would have just been a moderate climb. I had to get off for the final climb, and walk most of it. I was nervous that I would walk up to the finish line- far from a glorious finish. Luckily as the incline leveled out, there was still about 1/4 mile to the finish. I passed a man who could barely walk his bike, and I definitely felt for him. At numerous times throughout the ride I felt like I couldn’t go on- even pushing my bike up the hill seemed too much.
I rounded the final bend, and came down the finishing stretch. What a welcome suprise when the announcer gave my name as I crossed the finish, and a volunteer held a medal in his outstretched hand. I pumped my fist and gave myself a mental pat on the back. As soon as I could, I asked someone what time it was: 12:10pm! In just over 5 hours I had biked 63 miles, and God knows how many feet I climbed.
I wolfed down a lunch, lots of water and some delicious reGen, a recovery beverage that I’ll give a plug for here, since they were nice enough to give it out for free. After lunch I made the long bike home (poor planning!), and collapsed into my bed for several hours after a quick shower. When I had the energy I went online and looked up the course. I discovered that we had climbed an amazing 2,600+ feet over the length of the course. It might not sound like a lot until you put it into perspective- thats over 1/2 of a mile straight up into the sky!
Looking Back (and Ahead!)
1- Riding with a team would have been a lot easier. Motivating yourself to bike another 35 miles when your legs are seizing up is a real challenge.
2-I didn’t stop at any of the rest stops along the route- I was just too nervous about being able to get back on the bike and continue riding. I’m not sure if I should have stopped or not. Past the 45th or so mile, getting off of the bike invited instant cramps that could only be relieved by squatting- not the most comfortable or practical position.
3- The human body is amazing. The speed at which I saw some climbers take on the hills was just astounding. Equally astounding was the mental toughness off all the riders. Compelling myself to do the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done in my life required a lot of fortitude. At the end of the race, while at lunch, I was talking with some of the reGen reps. One of them asked me how I was able to continue after cramping up at mile 26. The answer was really simple: I didn’t have a choice. I just had to dig in and “do it”.
4- Throughout the ride I think I ate enough food- I think I could have drank more however. From start to finish I had: a Snickers Marathon Bar, Gatorade Prime, Energy Gel, Gatorade Perform, Clif Bars, a Planters Peanut Bar & lots of water. Afterwords I had reGen, water, a good lunch, and Gatorade Recover. However, if I could do it again, I would alter my intake a bit. I would have more of the energy gel, less whole food, and more liquids, both Gatorade and Water. I didn’t use my Camelback because the thought of having something strapped to my back for 63 miles in 90 degree heat just wasn’t appealing.
5- Gear. In any activity from running to biking to hiking to camping to dragon boating, once you get involved with any level of seriousness, the costs for technical equipment can quickly add up. Although it was tough to do it before the race, I’m glad I invested in a a number of things. Padded Shorts- these weren’t cheap- starting at around $50 a piece, you have to wonder why any pair of shorts should cost that much money. Now that I’m done I can say it was 100% worth it. I’ve gone on shorter rides in the past and wound up pretty sore. With these shorts I felt pretty okay by the time I finished. Sunglasses– I invested in a decent pair of sport sunglasses. They are strong, light, and the wrap-around is nice. Keeping the sun out of your eyes is definitely a plus. There’s a lot going on already without worrying about being blinded. Bike Parts– I’m glad that I spent the time I did going over my wheels, tires and especially brakes. Flying down a hill at 38mph is no joke, and not having the tires and brakes in tip top shape would have been reckless. While I hope to upgrade my bike in the future, the gear I had today helped me get the job done.
5- I’m pretty confident I can handle the 125-mile AIDS charity bike ride I’m slotted for in September. I really think the course today was an anomaly, with an unkind amount of hills. I could have easily doubled the distance I traveled if I had more level terrain. (If you can support me for that ride please click here -I still need to raise over $250! 100% of your donation goes to AIDS research and health care).
6- I did it! With only about 2.5 weeks of in the gym training, and no extended road sessions, I was able to complete this ride, and in a decent time to boot. This has definitely given me the confidence to go out and continue riding, although I’m 100% certain I don’t want to climb 2600+feet in a ride again. Normally I think medals just “for finishing” are kind of cheesy, but I completely understand it now. Its nice to have some recognition for laying your body on the line and pushing yourself to the max. I wore it proudly on my bike ride back home, and you can bet its going to hang on my wall!