PBP: Clare’s story

Clare Zecher takes us on a roller-coaster ride through PBP, where she overcame sleep deprivation, a crash, mechanical problems, lost clothing, and more sleep deprivation to persevere, aided by her strong will and the generosity of a lady with nice face cream.

Clare at the Secret Control Thursday Aug. 23Clare at the Secret Control between Mortagne and Tinteniac

My PBP by Clare Zecher

Where to begin….

Well first, let me put in this disclaimer. This report is written by an athlete, an ultra endurance one at that, and it is written first and foremost for my fellow ultra endurance athletes, and for those aspiring to be ones. Now a marathon runner or century cyclist is certainly an endurance athlete, but not within this context, an Ironman athlete is barely beginning to scratch the surface here with the horrors of the happenings of the human body. (I am one of each of these so these athletes should not be insulted, only understand that whatever you’ve gone through can not compare to what happens over nearly four days of continuous movement). Childbirth would be a close second I’m told. With this being said, be forewarned that there are things discussed in this report that never would be discussed in polite conversation outside this context, social taboos of discussions have no place here, because without these things being discussed, there are no other sources of information for riders. So if you are uncomfortable reading about menstrual cycles, urination and defecation, please stop reading now as there are lots of gory details. These are shared in the hopes that the next person who rides PBP may either avoid or use similar measures to prevent unnecessary discomfort.

And now….

Paris Brest Paris can indeed be described in words in a general sense. One can describe the course, the people of France, the controls, the things that could go wrong, but to describe what my experience was like, well, I can’t find a word to describe it. Epic seems an overstatement. Brutal seems an overstatement. Long seems an overstatement, as does challenging. What’s the right word? Perhaps the right word will come to me by the time I finish this report, in the meantime perhaps describing my “adventure” will help provide a good picture. Oh wait, there perhaps is my one word summary, my “adventure”.

Going in to this ride I wondered if I belonged. My legs had done the training miles, I’d learned what I could about bike maintenance, practiced nutrition, purchased all the safety gear, etc. but somehow I didn’t feel like I belonged. Other cyclists spoke of how they’d completed 4 1200’s the year before, or 3 PBPs, or were going to finish in about 75 or 80 hours with lots of sleep, or no sleep. They freaked me out a bit. There were other PBP virgins that I met too who had finished 3 600Ks and rode faster than I did by far on the shorter distances. Overall while I knew I could do the mileage, doing it in 90 hours was a little scary. And the usual pre-ride jitters set in, suddenly my legs were logs and my IT band hurt, probably all simply stress related to jitters.

We started in the last wave at 11:17PM. My RBA and mentor, Matt, suggested it would be better to let the crazies get ahead of us, and to see the excitement at the start. When we finally started I was surprised how much he said we had to push that first 200K, and we did. I was scared my legs would blow up because my muscles burned, I was out of breath, my heart pounded and he kept saying we needed to get some time in the bank. (At least, that was my translation). I told Matt I didn’t ride this hard in a half Ironman even, but he persisted on his bike, so I continued to give chase. He has never failed me, and I put my faith in him. The rain soon began and we made it in to Mortagne dripping wet and I wasn’t prepared to have to restock my food etc in the rain. I had spare batteries, but with my sealed lights wet on the outside I was scared to open then for fear they’d be ruined. Fortunately running on the “low” setting which was still extremely bright, my two lights lasted until the morning. I pounded coffee and Advil and put icy hot on my shoulders which were aching, gave Matt my emergency rain poncho since he didn’t have a water proof layer, and started what would be the first of many butt cream applications. (Dr. Boudreaux’s, a combo of Desitin and A&D ointment saved my bacon). Two 4 oz cups of coffee later and jersey pockets full of baguette jambon sandwiches (two pieces of french ham on a ¼ of a baguette usually with salted butter) we took off in the rain on the slicked cobble stone dotted streets for the first check point at 220K in Villaines-La-Juhel. I realized during the night my rear bag kept hitting my rear wheel. In the dark I couldn’t fix it, or would risk losing a screw and then the problem would be irreparable. I rode 220k (about 140 miles) with my rear bag bopping my wheel and ultimately burned a whole with my tire THROUGH the nylon cordura waterproof bag exterior. In Villaines with the help of a local french man holding my bag upright I pulled out my wire cutters and knife and sawed off my rear water bottle carries. With my tools I repositioned my bag and raised the position on the seat and after an hour there realized my anxiety was getting out of control. I was only to stop for 30 minutes and had been there then an hour fifteen or so before leaving, and had lost 45 minutes in Mortagne as well. I was suddenly scared. A fellow rider bought me a sandwich to shove in my pocket, I put my bike bags together and put on “fresh” clothes (my return clothes for Thursday but I was soaked) and road on to the next control.

My tummy was upset now and I didn’t want to eat. The thought of my “energy” foods was nauseating and I made it nibbling slowly in to the next control. I think it was Fougeres. I ran in to my RBA there again and at the urging of other riders tried my first cold Coca-Cola in 15 years and boy that stuff was like crack. I’d misjudged how many Rolaids to bring and only had four for the whole first 600K, next time I’ll carry a whole pack each way and not leave them all in Loudeac. The Coca-Cola settled my tummy and I ate plain rice and noodles with salt (oh yum) and set out again, more sandwiches in my pockets. My packed pb& j’s and pb& nutella sandwiches made me gag. Instead of jettisoning them, I put them away in case I got desperate. Little bites at a time. Little did I know Mother Nature would pick this day to present me with my monthly bill, no wonder I was nauseous! I guess it was a good thing we were rain soaked.

We slogged on through Tintineac a depressing control for me and I bought more sandwiches, a coffee and another Coca-Cola and then the final 50ish mile push in to Loudeac where we’d hoped to be by midnight. I kept having to stop to go to pee lost my friends even though I felt “strong”. It was dark, it was raining lightly and we couldn’t see anything. Lights rolled by and I was doing maybe 13kph, slow, and a guy rode by just a little faster. I hopped on his wheel. A km or two later he started jerking and weaving all over the rode like a crazy man being chased by a bee. I asked if he was okay, and he said I’m fine but get off my wheel. I said “What?” And he replied, “I believe in sharing!!” I said, “Okay, uhm, do you mean lights? I can ride beside you for lights if you like”, and he says, “No, I’m not pulling you, you didn’t pull me, I’m not pulling you.” This psycho went on a total tirade (clearly American) and everyone was like, “Jerk!!” I said I’ve been pulling people all day, and he replied, “But you didn’t pull me!” So I thought to myself as has happened so many times over the years when I ran in to a childish under –endowed individual on a bike with a Napoleonic complex, don’t waste energy yelling at him because he’s not worth it, instead mentally I thought, “Fine buddy, you want me to pull you? No problem. Hop on my wheel, if you can!” And I took off like a bat out of hell at 25 kph and didn’t look back for 20 or 25 K on the approach in to Loudeac. With his attitude, I doubt he finished.

Around 1:55 or 2:55 AM (I can’t remember now) I rolled in to Loudeac at 450 km (considered about 1/3 of the route), and at 5:45 AM I rolled out with a little more than an hour nap, dry tops and shorts and then was immediately in the rain again. I ate some rice and pasta with salt, and off in to the rain to Carhaix with a secret control in between. This day we had to ride from Loudeac to Brest and back, and the 80 hour riders were already back from having gone to Brest, which was a little depressing. We had 330K to go to get back, about 200 miles with headwinds and a “mountainous” section to cross to get in to Brest. Once again I found myself riding alone. In both Loudeac and Villaines I stopped to clean and re-oil my chain, a good decision with all the rain and mechanicals happening out there I think. Definitely glad I had rags with me (thanks Lon for the suggestion) and a small bottle of lube (thanks Pierce). The ride from there to Carhaix and from Carhaix to Brest was in the words of Ed Felker, a slog. Perfect word. I got off my bike arriving in Carhaix and when I made it in to the control, all of a sudden I felt wiggy. I ordered food (more rice and or spinach/ green beans – at least I had that at one of the controls, a 4 oz plain yogurt, more sandwiches, nibbling what I could, maybe this is where the Coca-Colas started I can’t remember, and I took my first 10 minute complete sack-out nap on four bench chairs. The yogurt came mostly plain in 4 oz containers. Yogurt often settles tummies and is a good source of protein and calcium; I wish more people had known that. I think it was a better choice than the hunks of meat I saw people eating. Anyway, what a refresher! That 4 oz of coffee and coca-cola with a little food helped me feel so much better. Back on the bike to Brest, and I had lost Roo (my new friend Steve from Australia, Matt my mentor and Menoshe from Israel all of us who had been sort of leap frogging each other and all had to push to Brest). I was in the bushes when Ed rolled by, and Ron (from DC Rand who we’d met up with too and ridden with) had stopped at a road side stand for a family to get something to drink. Ed said come on I’ll ride with you a while. A VERY generous offer since Ed is also known to me as “Super Ed” because he’s wicked fast. He pulled me and we chatted for probably half the way to Brest then he vamoosed off. I had also pulled out my MP3 player leaving Loudeac and listed to music Phil had recorded for me, and a special, “Go get’em Clare!” message he’d secretly recorded on it. Unfortunately I left it in Loudeac on the way home, not finding it in the dark in the rain thinking I had it with me. That was a bummer later but if I’d dwelt on it I‘d have gotten upset and there wasn’t enough energy to spare. I simply sang to myself the songs I knew, Christmas carols. The hills in to Brest were exactly like San Francisco, oh my Lord, who knew? Honestly, someone has a really sick sense of humor. And climbing “the Roc” in 60 kph headwinds with drizzle was not pleasant. Did I mention the semi’s passing us at 70+ mph? At least they gave us a wide berth, but talk about scary! Thank goodness the pavement of the french roads is so awesome and my Continental Grand Prix 4-Season tires stuck to it like glue, but with a good rolling resistance. Oh – I had no punctures either, yeah! I didn’t need to know “pneu crueve” after all! French for flat tire. Rock on! Awesome seam tape Pierce! So I’m in Brest telling Phil on the phone that if he was there I’d quit, that I’d lost Matt and couldn’t wait for him thinking he was 30 minutes behind me, and that I was a little freaked out. I knew I had 48 hours to get back, but somehow I had miscalculated when the controls closed. I thought I could sleep for three hours at a few controls and still be back in 90 hours. Oh no, you don’t get the “bonus” time for the return all at once, it builds over the ride back. So think more like 15 minutes to 30 minutes per control, not a 3 hour chunk unless you wait ‘til the last one and pray for no flats. I arrived in Brest at 12:15 (15 minutes after the official close, but we had a 2 hour extended closing because of the winds, and personally my closing was at 1:55 PM, an extra one hour 40 minutes later because I started officially at 11:10 and not 9:30 with the first group. So I was a little ahead. I made jelly butter baguettes, drank a pop and water and picked up a butter cookie and was sitting like a war victim getting ready to head back. I called Phil and he said as he dutifully had practiced, “Just keep pedaling”. There was only one way to get home, ride my bike. However long it took, I had to ride my bike.

I was suddenly very sad, depressed, scared and overall freaked out. And then like an angel appearing, there was Matt. Like a good Momma he metaphorically patted me on the butt and said scoot along. I rolled out with him and Ron on the slog back to Carhaix saying to myself over and over through tears, (but not loud enough so they could hear me or see the tears) I will finish, I will finish, sniff, sniff, I will finish! I must have said it two hundred times and kept doing so. Those silly motivations seminars where they say to talk positively stuck in my head, and as my Mom said, “Fake it ‘til you make it”, so I kept telling myself, “I feel fabulous!” I decided to do what I’d heard was the best thing to do in this situation and I started eating everything I had. I thank the Lord I had packed 3 boxes of Kellogg’s Rice Krispies, Mentos, Extra Gum, jambon and jelly sandwiches and hammer gels. I ate half a baguette with jelly and butter and the rice krispies and the mentos and within 45 minutes I had chilled out, or at least gotten a grip. Matt was concerned but trying not to scare the hell out of Ron and me I think. He knew any chance of a 3 hour nap was gone, and we were praying we’d get 90 minutes for at least one REM cycle in Loudeac. I think Matt thought we might not get to sleep at all. And then, it started to rain in force again.

My ankle started bugging me on the way to Brest. I thought it was the zipper pull on my left gore-tex leg warmer under my gore-tex rain pants. I pulled over when the rain started to put on my rain pants after leaving Brest on the return, and they were gone. I had unloaded my packs in Brest, gone in for lunch, and re-packed my bike when I left. I didn’t think about what I was packing; only that everything by my bike got in my bags. My pants were gone I realized en route, and my sopping wet neoprene pants from night #1 were in Villaines, some 300K away. Pity party coming…..without warm joints in to the night I was afraid suddenly my knees would ache more, they hurt from the pushing on Monday night and I’d since backed off and spun up hills, cranking only when I had down hills. We made it back through Carhaix and I think that’s where I tried another 10 minute nap to no avail while waiting for Ron to eat. (I think that’s where at least)

When I finally reached Loudeac I knew sleep would be short if at all, and that Matt hopefully was sleeping when I neared the control. I put on dry clothes, re-ointment’d my hiney, restocked food only containing long-chain maltodextrins (they won’t upset your tummy) and slept a quick 45 minutes, maybe thirty I don’t remember, and set off with the sandwich from Carhaix or wherever the previous control was in my pocket as of yet uneaten. I chowed it. I stopped at the first small village, about 25 K out on the way to Tintineac and went to the boulangerie /small grocery. In french I asked the lady if I bought a pound of butter and jelly or something if she’d let me use a knife to make a sandwich and to leave the butter and things for the next riders. She had delicious fresh ripe bananas of which I purchased two, and also demi-baguette, and then made two sandwiches of butter, and she let me use her potty (she wanted to clean it first but compared to the controls it was like the Ritz) and Glory Be she had a real sink with soap and I washed my hands (one of my luxuries on brevets) and she had real paper towels with which to dry my hands. I was so happy. I was there nearly 30 minutes, oh, and they re-filled my water bottles from their tap. I was good to go to get to Tintineac and arrived without further incident running in to Mary and Jeff without a rear brake on their tandem on the way in. 30 minutes later, one coke and one 4 oz yogurt down, two jambon sandwiches in my pocket I decided to try to “crank” to Fougeres along the 31 mile section. The winds weren’t helping; I’d been alone too long again and was poking. In the rearview of my mirror I saw a wave of riders coming. I decided to hop their train and found a perfect for me paced team of Spanish riders riding the pace of their slowest rider, which matched my pace, as long as I kept trying. I had to pee, and I mean, I really had to go, but with about 50K to ride and them pulling me along at 25-30 kph it was worth it to not pee and stay on the bike, until…..they yelled.

(It’s important to note here that European riders are different from your average American riders. They are comfortable crossing wheels and passing on the right, they do not point out road hazards, they do not yell car up/ car back, clear etc, and they do not indicate when they’re crossing your wheel” In a word, they are suicidal and the more experienced ones move like schools of fish. They are comfortable bumping and riding so close they touch, but after I’d been tagged by the car earlier in the week and with the gusty winds and wet roads, it scared the snot out of me so I kept tooting my horn my dear friend Cathy (aka Cheetah) had given me as a Bon Voyage gift. – Further tangent – A few days before I left a care package arrived with socks, a rain jacket and a toot toot horn. This was a completely fortuitous gift for who knew the rain would be epic on this ride, and that too tired riders unable to respond to people on the road sides yelling, “Bonne Courage, Bonne Route, and Bonne Chance” would go absolutely nuts with cheers with a little toot of my horn. Everyone loved it, and it was awesome for alerting riders when I was passing, or they were drifting, or in the peloton of where I was. I tooted it so many times it barely toots now, and I’m going to ask Cathy to send another just like it. I almost didn’t put it on because we didn’t have space, but Pierce, (the McGuiver (sp?) of cycling) zip tied it in a perfect place securely.) I was glad I could say in french when they were next to me to give me more space, but I couldn’t see behind me, especially in a peloton I couldn’t look anywhere but ahead of me or it would be ugly.

So the peloton yelled in Spanish either that we’d missed the turn on this descent through a town, or that it was coming, either way, they all hit their brakes which shrieked and I did too, hit my brakes that is. I’m on the right near the curb and we’re four across and a following of french and Americans are behind us. They didn’t speak Spanish either but the french man behind me had crossed my wheel on the right side. The french man didn’t speak Spanish and apparently didn’t see what was going on, he slide tackled me. I went down fast and praise the Lord my upper body landed on him. My lower body landed on the saddle bag part of my leg above my knees and below my hips, really the squishy fat saddle bag part of my leg where women store fat. This was so lucky because no muscles, bones or nerves got squished and I couldn’t really feel it through my leg warmers. My left leg was wrapped through his handle bars twisted behind me. I laid there not moving and the Spanish team and french came running. I didn’t want to squirm and make it worse. Three men slowly unwound my left leg which was uninjured but a little sore, and picked me up while other Spanish riders took my bike immediately to fix it. The rear wheel wouldn’t spin and I thought, “Not like this, it’s not fair, I’ve come so far!” The french man who was a barrel chested man was uninjured as well (or at least he said so, he’d been riding in jeans shorts and was probably about 50 and maybe 5’8” but a broad, really broad and not fully muscle chest”. If I was gonna land on somebody, he was perfect. My back gave some twinges and they’re still here now today, but with Ibuprofen I barely feel them. Praise the Lord my head and neck didn’t get whip lash or hit. That curb of stones was really close though, maybe a foot. So within 5 minutes without rear brakes we were up and riding again. They were so impressed I was up, and I kept saying I was okay in french and Spanish, but in french that I was a little shaken and scared, that they rode more protectively of me for another 5K or 10K when I begged out to go to “el bano”. Thank goodness I did. I was still shaken 30 minutes after, and I had still had to go to the bathroom. I noticed then that one of my headlights had come loose and was dangling (it couldn’t fall off but could have gotten cracked against my head set rendering it useless) and was able to fix it. How I didn’t wet my pants in the fall I don’t know, but thankfully I didn’t. I pulled over at the top of a long hill and there was no where to hide, and as is common during the ride, we simply have to drop our drawers on the side of the road and go. At least I crossed the street. Guys have it easy, girls bare all, but with all the rain jackets etc you can’t see anything, even if you look. So some guy says, “Don’t you want to wait?” and I’m like, “Just turn around”, he was the only one I ever heard say a thing, and only because I was a chick. Anyway, back on the bike and 8 oz lighter (hee-hee, my joke for pee stops) I rolled on to Carhaix. I explained to a control person that I needed my bike looked at, I was a little shaky and I needed food, and that my rain pants had been stolen or misplaced, and that it was going to be a long, cold arrival in Villaines at midnight that night. There was an hour wait with the mechanics, too long I said because I wouldn’t make the next control. The control was waiting for more sandwiches and was out of them. A volunteer got them to look at my bike immediately after explaining what had happened. Miraculously in order to ride the bike only needed new brake pads they said. I had completely chewed through a brand new pair during the ride and damaged what I had in the crash. I drank a Coke, and while waiting there for another sandwich ate the spare that had been in my jersey pocket. Matt and others showed up, and good thing as I’d just started to get scared again at the timing. We couldn’t wait for sandwiches, Matt was gonna go to a restaurant, I needed to replace the bulbs on my tail lights, and I panicked. Suddenly more sandwiches arrived and Matt ate there, given me a precious few minutes to complete a few things. I had three ladies and one man wrap my upper legs and waist in garbage bags and electrical tape to help keep the rain off until I reached Villaines. I knew it was going to be a long, cold night until I got my clothes in Villaines and Phil had been concerned that I would not realize I was cold and get hypothermia. His concerns rang in my head. We set off, guardian angel Matt and I and instantly my wheels rubbed. Oh no, they adjusted my brakes and they rubbed the wheels. I fully opened up the front and rear ones and that fixed that. Oh no, now the garbage bags were ballooning with air and ripping. Ahhhh!!!! The garbage bags tore and got caught in my rear cassette, now in my rear derailleur, my chain. Ahhhh!!! Very dangerous!!! I pull over by a trash can to dump them on an uphill, not a good thing to stop on a steep uphill. 5 minutes later the pieces are out. Oh no!!!! Matt’s saying we have to go, we have to get moving, and ahhh, I’ve lost my 25 and 27, the chain keeps slipping. I’m cursing the mechanics and Matt’s saying it probably isn’t that, just my bike. He adjusts the cables, nothing, it’s worse. Flashbacks of the DC Rand PBP tune-up come to mind when my cable snapped and I had to ride a single speed. I’m thinking the cable will snap, same problem as before. I’m scared, Matt and I once again get separated. He says we need to move to make it in to Villaines before dark. At least I think it was Villaines. It’s getting harder to shift, my cables are tightening, I know it’s coming, the shifter cable is going to snap. It’ll be a 90 minute repair because I’m not very good at that, it’s raining, and I’m scared and my stuff is all packed up. I’ll get cold if I stop. Finally I try the Pierce adjustment, he gave me room for one left click at my finger, I move it left, think to myself okay Pierce said to ride it for a few revolutions or so to let the adjustment settle in, and then, Yahoo!!! It worked! Only 40K of intense fear and drama, and it only took a little click. I arrive at Villaines at around 10:30 PM I think and want to stop only 30-45 minutes. As before, a total cluster muck. They let people, babies, dogs you name it in with the bikes, where we were eating, everywhere, and you didn’t want to yell, “Get the hell out of my way” because they didn’t know the anxiety they were causing standing in there in your way wanting to encourage you. Control card stamped, the WCs (toilets) were disgusting so I didn’t even go near them. I knew I needed a 10 minute nap, some food, and to get clothes on. Mind you my clean cute outfit I planned to where the last 220 K on the last day in I’d had to wear on the way out because I’d been soaked. So that means my neoprene and other soaked clothes that had sat in a duffel in the cold rain for two days were still wet in the drop bag truck, and me being smart had put them in gallon Ziplocs to keep them separate from other stuff, pe-ew! I found a woman’s dry, warm locker room that nobody seemed to know about with clean bathrooms (thank goodness for knowing some french) and set my timer for 10 minutes to change clothes. 50 minutes later moving like molasses, in sopping wet neoprene and my day 1 shorts which were only wet and not soaked in various bodily fluids (like I said, you try riding days on end nonstop during your time of the month) I went to my bike. A man helped my swap out the batteries of my lights in the drizzle (thank goodness I had a towel that was only damp), I re-lubed and cleaned my chain, restocked my bike with more long-chain maltodextrin (aka Hammer gels) and every single rice krispie treat I had left and put what I could in my easy to grab aero top tube bag for night riding. I went in to the food place and bought rice, noodles, potage (Matt had me try that earlier on, a hot brothed soup), a coca-cola and a large coffee. I asked a man to wake me in 10 minutes, I was shaking in fear again I’d get behind the clock and had wasted so much time. I set my timer and couldn’t sleep. I sat up, chugged the coffee and coke, the noodles and rice were crunchy, not cooked and made me want to gag, so I slurped potage shaking again. The shaking was the kind you get when your blood sugar is low, or when you have coffee on an empty tummy. Oh I almost forgot, in the locker room I came upon the pb& nutella sandwich I had made for the first night that was totally unappealing the first time. It was squashed in a zip loc under everything else. Surprisingly, it was really good (relative here) and I ate that while changing. 40 grams of fat and protein later….. So I threw away the nasty pasta/rice, slurped half the potage, the coffee and the coke, and bought two sandwiches and put on my full on winter clothes including a balaclava and winter rain coat. It was 12:15. I rode 15 minutes and I was so hot my glasses fogged up. I removed my winter layered gloves and put back on my water proof green rubber gardening gloves from Carrefour for 3 euro over my short gloves, put away the balaclava (why did I leave my ear band in Villaines?) and unzipped my jacked and put the sleeves around my biceps and the pit zips fully opened with a smart wool and a jersey underneath. Hot stuff. It was going to be a long scary 50 or 60 miles to Mortagne where everyone said we needed to get to before resting. I lost one hour and 45 minutes in Villaines, but I was warm, ate, restocked food and battery lights, and cleaned my chain, and had a few minutes to rest, I think it was a good choice. Kevin from San Diego, riding for the first time with his two brothers, Jeff and ? I keep forgetting the other’s name, came riding up. I called him “little Kevie” thinking he was a 20 year old pup with his two older brothers who were anciens (previous PBP finishers). Alas he’s I think 38 or something he said, which was obvious in the lights that the blonde highlights were gray in his beard (hee-hee).

Kevin’s bike hadn’t arrived in France and he bought a new one on Sunday the day before the ride and was hurting as it didn’t fit well. Thinking of him, and the guy whose top tube broke on the way in to Brest where he had to buy a new bike, is what helped me keep moving when that guy hit me, it really stopped my pity party, I mean, Lord, they had to buy new bikes!!! Anyway he asked if I’d seen the accident and I said no. Apparently soon after I must have left Villaines a man on a recumbent who had been swerving with sleep deprivation finally went off the road. Kevin came upon it with ambulances and emergency vehicles. It’s my understanding he died. People were suffering because again it was night, it was really hilly and we couldn’t descend quickly because it was wet and we couldn’t see turns at high speeds, and therefore we lost momentum for the up hills. The neoprene booties I put on in Villaines were helping to immobilize my left ankle, so while I could not stand up to climb since Brest, once again I could and it was a good thing because my knees can’t grind up any more hills, even in 34/27. We’re tired, everyone is leap frogging and Kevin and I are attempting to ride together to Mortagne by 5 AM, if we’re lucky, but we know we can get there as late as 9 AM before it would close for us (1:40 delay for my start plus the 2 hour buffer that we’d have to make up after). I just keep pedaling and will get there when I can. Kevin is really sleepy, I’m starting to feel “funny”. He’s okay riding with me since he’s waiting for his brothers to catch up. I’m shooting Hammer Gels and stuffing in Rice Krispie treats, mixing baguette with butter in my mouth swishing it with water to get it mushy to swallow. The bread never tore my mouth up being crunchy like I’d been warned, but I knew I was dehydrated when my mouth didn’t salivate at the food. Usually I drool when I eat on the bike, the opposite reflex most people have, but it’s a God send because it means I can keep swallowing food when others can’t. I also usually drink 20-24 ounces of water an hour, but with the cold and rain, and slower pace, I was drinking a bottle every 2-3 hours, however I did drink coke, a little water and or coffee at the controls.

We pulled off at a little town for a coke and a coffee or something, they were sold out, but I drank Orangina (ew!) which had sugar but no caffeine. I popped two caffeine pills, about 400 mgs, probably the amount in a cup of coffee but I don’t know if they helped and my tummy didn’t seem to like them, I kept popping two Ibuprofen from the start every 4-6 hours for my shoulders, and 2 anti-fatigue caps from Hammer Products every control, or 4’ish hours to help deal with the ammonia build up, or whatever, in the muscles. I also kept eating a Rolaids (about one tablet) every 12 hours. BioFreeze on my shoulders four times kept the pain manageable there too. I tried to buy some Rolaids along the way but the pharmacist couldn’t understand me. And it took 8 minutes to get a stinkin’ band aid at a control for a blister on my finger that I’d had the week before that popped. Not a big deal but annoying, but that was all long before this night started. So Kevin and I had our drinks, peed and kept rolling. We came upon a coffee stop some local ladies set up in the middle of nowhere in front of their house on a hill in the woods. We pulled off, drank our allotted steaming hot 4 oz of coffee and a dried apricot each and were so happy as we rode on. We made it a bit longer and I was singing carols out loud, we were telling disgusting stories and laughing, and I started my alphabet games of which Kevin was a kind participant and I said, “Kevin, I’m getting funny, I need to pull over to do jumping jacks at the next town.” We found a street light and he didn’t think jumping jacks in cleats on wet pavement was a good idea. So instead I put water on my face, mow’d down a bag of Clif Blox, and sort of did a little dance, and on we rolled. We were tired and wanted to stop but thinking clearly in that we were holding a straight line and I had one of my lights trained on the road side at all times so we could see where it was, a lot of people were running off the road either because they didn’t see it or were tired and there was a ditch over there, and cyclists scattered and I didn’t want to end up with them. We knew we simply had to get to Mortagne. If we stopped we knew we’d lose any chance of a nap there which we desperately needed. Descending we stayed apart enough to be safe, and otherwise tried to keep about a lane between us because when we looked down to get in our nose bags for a snack we’d weave. I wanted to rest in the dormitory at Mortagne, but Kevin didn’t want to miss his brothers so he decided to put his head down in the cafeteria. I was thoroughly butt pasted but I could feel that the diaper rash was getting very bad and was a little unnerved about it. Kevin invited me to take off with him and his brothers in the AM. I rolled in to Mortagne around 5:30 or 5:40, which was later than I’d wanted. I had hoped for at least 90 minutes of sleep but realized even an hour would put me at risk for not leaving by 7 AM and I wanted that 10 hours and 15 minutes whatever to get to St Quentin, knowing there were hills, and that my ankle and knee might go wiggy and that I might need 10-15 minute power naps on the way back. I went in the dorm at 5:45, removed my neoprene boots, shoes and socks, pulled my neoprene pants and cycling shorts down around my knees to expose my feet and butt to the air (it is pitch black in here and you have only your own tiny red light if you have one to see what you’re doing, no one else can see you and you’re led to your mat by a person with a little flashlight who shakes you awake at your requested time on the 15 minutes). I covered my hiney with a blanket and laid on the bare mattress used by countless others, as was the blanket, and put my sleeve of my coat over my eyes and had set my watch for 6:30.

I’m shaken awake by the volunteer. I’d had about 35 or so minutes maybe of actual sleep. The smells didn’t get to me but the snoring and farting were a symphony that would rouse you from sleep. I put on my wet wool socks, my sopping wet leather shoes, my shorts and neoprene pants and went outside. I decided dry Sugoi shorts were better than my soaked with nasty fluids Assos ones which I’d stuck to because the seams don’t rip my skin of which I’d already worn 4 pairs and that’s all I had, and went inside for another thorough baby wipe cleaning followed by butt cream application and put on the dry shorts, then the wet neoprene pants, and put my neoprene booties on my rear pack. I should note here that going in to this I thought I’d only be able to sleep in my safety blanket on the road sides because of crowding at controls That there were open beds inside was a complete surprise and God send for me. I also showered in a cold damp locker room in Loudeac on the way out that was blessedly female only, so I was at least inside able to change all my clothes and shower once (no time on the way back and brush my teeth). The line for food was too long, I saw Kevin and his brothers, and they were leaving in 5 minutes from Mortagne. If I could get ready they’d let me ride with them. I filled a water bottle thinking I had two full ones. Kevin’s brother then broke a crank and since his two brothers had done PBP before, the one brother helped the other while Kevin continued on. His brother also gave me ¾ of a water bottle as I’d run out. The food line was long in Mortagne, so I pulled all my food from my rear pack and put it within arms reach in front of me, and there glistening like a pot of gold under a rain bow, in the middle of an empty parking lot, is a cold, unopened can of Coke. I chugged it and thanked whoever didn’t want it.

My face hurt from wind and rain burn. I hadn’t been applying sun cream for obvious reasons but had used eye drops for my eyes for the sleepiness and wind burn. My face was near lobster red and tender, and chapstick wasn’t working on my skin. I pulled over and asked a lady and her friends who were helping their french family members with a support van if she had face cream. No, they didn’t have sun cream. I explained in broken french that my face hurt because of the wind, and that I needed face cream for the pain and to protect it. A smile broke out on her face and she took off running for her car and apparently her purse. Out she pulled a tube of some fabulous french face cream. We applied it to my face and it was so smoothing. In hind sight (no pun intended) I wonder if I could have applied some butt cream to my face, presumably so. I’ll have to look in to that. I had practiced saying you are an angel in formal french many times and used it over and over on the people that helped me who nearly had tears of happiness knowing they helped a rider. It’s a huge honor for them to help and seems to give them bragging rights forever as they relive and retell the stories of how they helped. (I’ll interject too here that since I was applying butt cream with my right hand and was using wet wipes and anti-bacterial gel to clean my hands, I was still trying to eat with my left had, I didn’t want to give myself ebola or lord knows what else, but Phil has assured me that I couldn’t give it myself, but still, ew! And thank you for Marcella or whomever at brevet week who warned me that when you’re tired, if you apply Icy Hot to your skin, make sure to use your other hand for the butt cream, otherwise you’ll howl in pain as the burning menthol is on your tender tushie, and you simply can not get rid of the burn. Fortunately I had so many butt wipes I could well clean my hands between various cream applications. Leaving Mortagne the sky lightened and we had a quarter or tail wind which blew us to Dreux. I pounded food and gels, blocks, and rice krispies afraid my energy would crash and wanted to stay on a stable stomach energy push. My ankle started to hurt bad again. I didn’t realize until the finish that I hadn’t put my bootie on so the ankle wasn’t immobilized, tactical error. Anyway I arrive in Dreux having wheel sucked as much as humanly possible and had asked every french ancien I could find where the hills were, before or after, they said mostly before so I pushed through them to the extent possible to keep up a lead on the finish in case a shifter cable snapped, my chain broke, or I needed a nap or got lost. In Druex they had a feast. I refilled my water bottles at the once again nasty and all too common uni-sex bathroom, bought two delicious bananas, a 4 oz yogurt, two Coca-Colas and two Twix bars. I jettisoned my trash, drank a Coke, (hurried because Kevin was leaving soon), chowed down the yogurt, and then the Twix bar en route and worked on the banana. Oh no, San Francisco feeling hills and a northward route in the wind. I hid from it as I could, continuing to eat and ride steadily. Rolling through a village the deluge began again. I pulled over and put my rain coat on and was instantly hot but afraid with 30’ish miles to go I’d get chilled and knowing 30 miles was to be covered over possibly the next 5 hours. We rode through, bodies lining the road side like war victims, people standing over the bikes, head and hands on handle bars trying to will themselves awake, and then I ate the next banana and Twix bar in. Doh! Big bump, there goes the banana, oh well, it didn’t taste very good anyway. Finally 15K, then 10K and tandems and recumbents are taking reckless chances to make it back by 3 PM, then the 3:30 people are taking reckless chances, half asleep on their bikes, Marty on the side of the road standing there trying to wake up and he’d pulled me so strongly earlier, and we’re circling St Quentin following signs for the last 5 K and hitting every single, no exaggeration, red light through town and I’m nearly single leg pedaling with left ankle pain and singing a Nelly wrap song to match the beat of my right leg pedaling and left coasting pedal stroke talking to everyone. “Shimmy shimmy cocoa puff, we’re goin’ down down baby, one speed on the rain forest, sweet sugar baby.” Obviously I have no idea of the words of the rap song, but this is what I’m singing” coherent but I simply don’t know the words and friggin’ finally the Gymnase de la Droites d’Hommes appears and we rack our bikes. The line is ridiculously long for the control, people are fighting in french, spanish, italian to get to the front of the line lest they miss their cut off time. A volunteer tells me in french that it’s okay just tell them what time you finished and they’ll mark you card. They didn’t. They noted when they marked my card not allowing for the time the line took, but maybe they give you an allowance for line time. Anyway they marked my brevet card with 3:30 or something and I had ‘til 5:10 to finish, even though I entered the gym around 3:10. It was hot and smelled disgusting in the gym and I pulled the extra Coke I’d carried all the way from Dreux out of my pocket and chugged it. The smell alone could make you dizzy, but getting off the bike and simply standing wet in a hot line for 20 or so minutes was awful. I made it through the line and there’s Matt coming in. I offered to go get him a Coke and the drink tent was too far away. I wanted to go back to my hotel and change and rest, he thought I’d want to wait for everyone to come in, unh-unh. Tactical error again I had removed my neoprene pants that were wet and sopping in order to walk around without squishing. I walked around looking for people and drank a second Coke. My legs must have gotten cold and now I couldn’t even pedal with my left leg to the hotel, and couldn’t clip in because I couldn’t get my leg out, and didn’t know how to get to the hotel. I was coherent, I simply didn’t have my map. Fortunately I knew how to get home from the train station though and followed the signs to it, with my pants around my neck, a poster in my rear pocket and my picture in my hand. I came in and dropped off the bike, showered and changed, got all my luggage upstairs of course before the shower, then got ready to lay down. I called Phil, and was bummed I’d missed Pierce at the finish, but nothing about this PBP had been as it was supposed to and with hours of rain I wasn’t surprised to miss him. Did I mention my camera quit working before I hit Villaines? So no pictures, but others said they’d share. I had hoped for pictures of myself with the people I rode with, oh well. Pierce called from the lobby and I went down to see him and Jennifer looking so happy, it was so uplifting to see such happy people, especially after seeing only nearly downtrodden riders. I went back upstairs looking forward to breakfast with Pierce and then praise the Lord he’d planned to pack my bike for me, yeah!!! I set my alarm for 7:30 AM.

Matt appeared and was going to dinner with everyone. I’d made a pb& j in my room and that was enough for me. Matt showered and went to dinner and I woke up 4 hours later when he returned to crash on my floor. I then was wide awake for two hours and went downstairs to talk with Phil on the phone, not being able to sleep with another person in the room at first. That and somehow something from his bike had made it to the room and the toxic odor nearly killed me, I carried the (I thought) offending articles out of the room, but I simply couldn’t sleep. Finally exhaustion over came me and I fell asleep after midnight. I awoke at 7:30 or 7 maybe and woke up Matt so I could shower, clean up and prepare to meet Pierce, all while walking around freely in the room. Matt scooted out and I then showered and gloriously walked around in a towel in my room flopping about getting ready. I had breakfast with Pierce, watched as he skillfully and with the precision of a heart surgeon disassembled the old girl for packing, and then I set off to get the scoop on the laundromat thinking that no one else knew about it. There was a line. I didn’t want to go home with a suitcase of sopping days old clothes full of Lord knew what. I went to my room, still limping from my left Achilles being stretched and put all my clothes in Phil’s roller duffel to get to the laundry. Four hours later I had mildly cleaner damp clothes. It was so stinking humid the clothes would not dry, so at least I’d re-set the as Phil put it I think, bacteria growth clock/ science experiment. Suddenly a near migraine came on and I had to lay down. There were clothes and gear everywhere in my room and I had a near panic attack. How could I pack everything in the disaster area and get ready by 5 AM the next day, and oh I had planned to go for a 3 PM massage. I laid down almost nauseous with a head ache. Two hours later I had the sense to take Advil and within 15 minutes was clear headed and drank water and showered. Obviously I missed the massage. I got my things organized and decided that I might simply have to replace over $2,500 worth of cycling clothes if it came to that, and Phil said if you have to, simply throw out everything except the Assos, some of the nastiest of the bunch, but representing, about $1,500 worth of the gear in the bag. Catholic guilt – I’d wash and wash and wash it again when I came home, Ed says, “Just use Tide when you get home and do two loads, it’ll kill anything.” I knew if it got desperate my Mom would know how to get the clothes clean again.

Well it’s humid here at home and the clothes are air drying after load number one so we’ll see how they do, load 2 is coming next if this one didn’t work. Unfortunately my cycling shoes smell a bit like mildew (I couldn’t switch shoes as planned because the friggin’ adjustable clasp got stuck closed on both shoes, exactly what I asked I the company that sold them to me if it could happen. Stinkin’ Shimano adjusting buckles. Anyway – those shoes are fine. But my awesome triathlon shoes might be toast which considering they’re four years old I’ve gotten good use of them. We might put them in a bucket to soak, I mean, obviously they’ve been soaked once, well lots of time riding in the rain, and I think I can replace the insole, so that might help. My flip flops, my awesome Teva flip flops, however stink like some of the nastiest stuff I smelled out there. Apparently the cloth part that goes over your foot, of which there’s like a 4 x 1 inch strip only, these are thongs after all, smells so bad that if the washer doesn’t get the smell out, they’re definitely done. I didn’t wear them, I think they must have been too close to a zip-loc in my gear bag in the rain, eww!

I ate dinner for the sixth time that week at Pizza Pino and the staff were sick of cyclists and rude, my waiter pissed off because I didn’t want to sit in the sun, spilled tomato sauce on me when I said my dinner was cold and asked for it to be reheated, and then I went completely and utterly ape s)**#t on him to his manager who tried to clean my shirt, and then they charged me full price still. At least I had the good sense to go crazy in french, and not english. That’s when I started hearing the stories of what had happened to riders which I’ll share here now, and this is what makes PBP, PBP.

A man named Todd from Cincinnati who I believe has finished sub 60 hours in previous years, near aged 48, was found walking, shivering in a small village. The local gendarmerie found him and one of them spoke English. After some time they realized he was a PBP rider off course. They also called an ambulance to warm him up because he was nearly hypothermic. They asked him where his bike was, he didn’t know. Apparently Todd doesn’t remember this incident. A farmer called and said his barn or garage had a side window broken out and that there was a bike in there, but the door had been locked on the way out. The farmed brought the bicycle to town, a distance of five kilometers. Apparently Todd broke in and put his bike in there and thought the rain was cold but that if he stopped he’d warm up and started walking in cleats. After his bike was brought in, he said he had to get on it to ride, he had to go. The paramedics and police said his hematocrit or whatever was too low and he shouldn’t ride. He rode off anyway, paying for the window, and supposedly they followed him 10K to see if he weaved on the rode. Apparently they said if he weaved they’d stop him, but he made it and miraculously finished in 65 hours, so they think he only lost maybe 5 hours in this episode.

Another couple on the way out had a clicking crank that was coming loose on their tandem. They hopped off and the husband used the multi-tool to crank down the pedal, and the multi-tool broke. The crank was fine for a few miles then click, click, click and it was loose again. They pulled over and explained what they needed in English to a French only speaking man who ran to his house to get a wrench. They started to strip the pedal but tightened it. It was tight. On the pedaled and within a few miles, click, click, click. At this point if she kept pedaling on the crank it would be irreparable, and they were still on the way out. Her husband said put one foot in your water bottle cage and pedal with one foot. This is pretty painful from a muscle point of view so finally he said put both up and I’ll pedal. She started jogging in cleats up the hills next to the bike as her husband pedaled. Finally 5 K to go from the control with 30 minutes left she told her husband to just go, get to the control, and she’d jog in. He went ahead, swiped the card, then came back and got her and she swiped in, and the mechanics said the problem was really, really bad but that they couldn’t help them, they didn’t have the parts or tools. She learned in french to ask for a 14 mm socket wrench and started asking everyone along course with a car if they had one. Finally she found one, and then her husband asked for aluminum foil, she found that and while he worked on the bike, she had to also find hemorrhoid cream, anti-inflammatories and something else from a pharmacy, all while speaking no french, and she did find it! As she said, her husband McGuiver’d the bike and by cramming aluminum foil in the pedal created something for the crank to bite in to effectively un-stripping the bolt or whatever and then used the wrench to jam it tight. The long story short is that it worked the rest of the way, and who knew, with only aluminum foil. They were later pulled over on the side of a hill and a man was weaving his way towards them and suddenly drifted towards on coming traffic. He realized it at the last minute and pulled right, swiping them on their tandem road side and crashing endo in to a 3 foot deep roadside ditch in the dark. The lady said she was so scared because they couldn’t see him, and he didn’t move or speak. She crawled in the rain down to the ditch and the man came to asking about his bike. She lifted it off of him, helped him up, and without further ado he got on his bike and weaved his way down the road.

The last story I head of was a man with Shermer’s neck who stopped to raise his handle bars. He couldn’t move them because of the zip ties all over his bike. He spoke no french. A local man who spoke no English figured out what he needed and brought wire cutters. They raised the handlebars. The french man insisted on following him in his car a few miles to see if the problem would resolve itself, it didn’t, and the rider abandoned. The french man insisted the rider go back to his house, he fed him dinner, and had him sleep there that night, gave him shoes and clothing after realizing the rider only had wet clothes, and then drove the rider and his bicycle to the local train station, all without payment.

These are the stories of PBP. I’ll go back in 4 years if my life circumstances make it possible. I had a incredible experience and it’s difficult to describe unless you’re there. I do know a few things. I could not have done it without all the resources that I had from my local DC Randonneurs club members, my husband and family’s support, my job’s support, the brevet week lessons, and the support from my coach Michelle, my mentor Matt and other mentor Pierce, and also the people of France. It felt so natural once I was out there to be a part of it, maybe simply because on a bike is where I feel most safe in the world, and with that knowledge, I think I’ll continue to preach the gospel of cycling to any one who will listen.

And as I’ve gotten to say in general, Just Ride a Bike, well, now my own personal motto is:

Just Keep Pedaling…….which my husband so graciously repeated when I called him from the route….

And when life throws you a curve ball, just keep pedaling and you’ll get through it…..

My PBP was and is dedicated to the memory of Robert Burdick who died Monday May 28th roughly 12 hours after we’d completed the 600K qualifier at Brevet Week of a heart attack. He was so happy he’d accomplished his dream of qualifying for PBP. I had the great luxury of riding the last 100K of that ride with Robert, the ride of his life. While I only knew him a short time, I was lucky to do so, he was an amazing man and his name plate traveled the PBP route, so he did end up going to Paris after all.

3 thoughts on “PBP: Clare’s story

  1. Even us UK riders who are used to riding in the wet had trouble with wet gear.

    My mum said she was “relieved” to hear that the weather in Northern France was wet during PBP week as she didn’t think I’d like the heat that is normal in August.

    Oh yeah you said
    “after I must have left Villaines a man on a recumbent who had been swerving with sleep deprivation finally went off the road. Kevin came upon it with ambulances and emergency vehicles. It’s my understanding he died”…no, I think I know who that was and he is alive and kicking…see here:

    There was a 36% failure rate for 90 hour “specials”!

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