First I laughed. Then I cried. Then I laughed so hard I started crying. Kelly Smith has written a stellar account of his Shenandoah 1200K. It was his first long randonnee in three years of randonneuring that was to culminate in PBP until pesky circumstances got in the way.
The Idiot’s Guide to the Shenandoah 1200
by Kelly Smith
Monday June 9, 2008
-The best weapon in the arsenal of heat defense is a tubesock full of ice.
-Ask more questions and look at the cuesheet more carefully (of course if I had I would not
-Though it seems impossible at lunch time, you can climb mountains until midnight.
-Volunteers are the greatest people in the world!
-It is better to be lucky than good.
Here I sit in my bed trying to sort out impressions from the Shenandoah 1200 brevet, while simultaneously resting my seat, feet, hands, neck, and knees. I have never done a grand randonnee so have no direct frame of reference, but can only say it was the hardest, hottest, and in some ways scariest experience of my life.
First, some background. I began riding brevets in 2006 intending to do PBP. Riding with Mary Crawley on the tandem worked out so well I would have liked to have done BMB with her that year but a conflict stopped me. Come 2007 I missed PBP as well. When the idea of a local 1200 was mentioned I was all over that idea, even recruiting my wife to help. As time went by and the controversy grew I had my doubts, but starting a 1200 within 23 miles from my house was too ‘easy’, I had to do it.
Naturally (for me) as time went by my doubts grew and grew, peaking during the Middletown 600. That Saturday night I was 100% decided that I would not do the 1200. If I could get any money back, great. If not, consider it a donation. You could say it was Carol Bell who is responsible for my starting the 1200. She came blasting by on Back Road as I was recovering from a bonk. The fun I had chasing Andrea and Greg with her and Paul helped me forget how miserable I’d been. As it was the 600 probably saved my 1200 by finally teaching me to eat and drink enough.
I was a nervous wreck as the event approached. I debated all kinds of last minute changes, even considered building up a new bike before I came to my senses (or just ran out of time). I switched my saddle, but a test ride the weekend before convinced me to switch back. In the end I bought new tires (Conti Gatorskins) after a rash of flats (none on the 1200) and a new light (Black Diamond Icon – great light) the week of the event. Of course these last minute panic buys were at full price!
I knew it was important to be well rested, but my fretting led to much lying awake when I should have been sleeping. A final evening of packing meant I only had four hous of sleep before I got up at 2:15. Amazingly, from there on every thing went fantastically well for me, four truly lucky days.
The start was cool. There were so many people I didn’t know from all over the country, every one seeming confident and ready. Matt was his usual low-key self, finally launching us with a dramatic “well go ahead” or some other casual send off. The morning was comfortable, but intensely humid, my glasses fogged as we simply rode the easy initial bits of the route. We had to climb over and around downed trees and power lines in Waterford, but you could see stars in the sky and threatened storms never appeared.
The first 68 miles were like a regular club ride (other than being half in the dark). A good group stayed together chatting, and held a high but not unreasonable pace. The first shock was Spruce Run, a narrow and extremely steep climb I’d never ridden before. A school bus squeezed by adding to the thrill. We arrived at the Gettysburg control in great time and I put on sunscreen while eating a PBJ on bagel and grabbing snacks (eat, eat!). The group broke up here and I left alone, meeting Tom from Connecticut (I believe, apologies if that’s wrong) on the road. We chatted about the Gettysburg battlefield until we came upon the ‘group Andrea’ on the roadside. I didn’t know that her pedal had failed causing a fall till later, but they indicated things were under control and we moved on expecting to be overtaken soon.
In this area we saw lots more storm damage; in some places all trees were broken to some extent. Cleanup trucks and debris made it impractical to ride fast so things were pretty casual. Along here I met Jim from Ohio and Tim from Charlottesville. They were great road company. Jim reminded me of Jim Carey, and we kept a quick but manageable pace on through West Virginia into Virginia again. The heat began to really kick in now, and my memories get a little fuzzy, but I rode the section from Columbia Furnace to Harrisonburg with Mike Lutz from Pennsylvania at a conservative pace, arriving at 8:30 p.m.
My wife Josie and daughter Maggie were there. It was great to see them, and the facility was very nice. We made such good time and got in so early I had debated pushing on to Deerfield. Once indoors, however, the decision was made and I cleaned up. I chatted with them and also called Mary, who was having a great adventure crewing for Jeff Bauer and Kevin Kaiser on RAAM. I wasn’t very efficient so was up ’til 10; the dreaded seriousness of the event had not fully sunk in!
Curtis Palmer, Mike, and I met in the morning for a 4 a.m. start. I felt bad but not awful, and had breakfast of pancakes and OJ. We set off at Curtis’s usual FAST pace and while it felt like I might be sorry it was too much fun to pass up. The other benefit was rolling into Deerfield by 6:30 a.m. Later I realized how important it was to go fast in the dawn coolness; you would not go fast later! There we discovered a fantastic breakfast being served — hash browns, eggs, biscuits, gravy, bacon, and piles of readymade pastries. I immediately requested eggs and home fries, which really hit the spot I hadn’t even known was open.
The next section began to be increasingly hilly and I dropped back, riding solo the last bit into Clifton Forge. I met Paul there and joined him as I ate a grilled ham and cheese and enormous wedge of German chocolate cake. Paul’s big breakfast deal included the baked apples he didn’t want so I cleaned those up too. My feeding plan was certainly on track!
Mike arrived later after fixing a flat so he and I rolled out together. Soon the climbing became severe and I dropped back, beginning the hardest section of the route. Rich Patch, Upper Rich Patch, and Jameson Mountain Road were extreme trials, relieved only by overhead shade. I use a 34×28 low gear and have been climbing a lot recently, but I had to stand for extended pitches just to keep the pedals turning.
I was unwilling to take full advantage of the descents due to grit and gravel so this was a slow section: 76 miles took 7.5 hours!
I rolled into Christiansburg a cooked and broken man. The service sheet just listed snacks at the control so I stopped at a local pizzeria. That turned out to be a good choice. Two big slices of eggplant pizza and iced tea refueled me and I made phone calls to let the family and Mary know I was alive. Still, it was a very low point.
I dodged the rush hour traffic on 11/480 to the control and found a scene from Village of the Damned. Several riders were there who had decided to DNF and were trying to make a plan to get back to Leesburg. Matt greeted me with “Kelly, you’re going on, aren’t you?” Despite the way I was feeling I said yes and fled the vortex of bad vibes with my brevet card.
Christiansburg to Hillsville was rough, although not as hard as the last section, but I was very tired and facing a long solo night ride. On the plus side all along this area of the route, when you weren’t in the mountains, farmers were making hay. It was fascinating to see one after another in the stages of mowing, spreading, drying, raking into rows, and bailing the hay. I know it sounds boring but it was endlessly interesting to me…at the time. And time was freely available as I crawled through the endless rollers.
I stopped at a firehouse to fill my bottles and rig for night. One of the firemen was there and we chatted. It was almost embarrassing to explain what I was doing, but he was interested and friendly.
This was my first extended night riding. Thank goodness I had bought a new light at the last minute. It is a Black Diamond Icon headlamp with a 3 watt LED which completely changed my experience. With it I made time about as well as I could have by day, and the temperatures at last cooled. The terrain was not what I expected though, lots of descents that would be rued tomorrow on the return. There was one long climb that had me panicked for a while – I thought “if this keeps up to Fancy Gap I won’t get in til 4 a.m.!!” Finally I met the first two returning riders, who told me it was about two more hours to the Gap. It took me more like three, but at least I had an idea.
I reached Hillsville about 10 p.m. Thank heaven for Jim and Clare at the control! They were so positive and enthusiastic. Clare handed me sodas and a PBJ, Jim got me lined up with a group leaving to head up to the Gap and I was on my way. At last the day’s end was in sight. I felt much better to be climbing in sight of others, and finally believed I could make it and sleep a while.
When I reached the Parkway it was truly eerie. I’d ridden it before but not at night. It is utterly dark, and I expected deer or bears to step into the road at any minute. Finally I got to the control, which was different because you left your bike at one cabin near the Parkway then were shuttled up the hill to other cabins to eat and sleep.
What a setup the NC Randonneurs had! There was tasty chili, made to order burgers, and lots of side treats. Even better, the atmosphere was really positive and fun. It really boosted my spirits.
After a short but comfortable sleep I met Curtis and Mike at 3:30 a.m. for a 4 a.m. rollout. It was a pleasant surprise to see Paul at the lower cabin resting up. Of course the WGR doesn’t actually need to sleep, but he does get off his bike from time to time. He chided me for my silly sleep habits and we wished each other luck.
Leaving Fancy Gap was fairly miserable at first, seat issues began to show up, and the legs were fairly unresponsive. Here were the dreaded downhills from last night. In fact, one of the steepest bits of the route (but short thankfully) was on the ‘descent’ from the BRP! We passed Andrea and Greg who had stopped in Hillsville, I think, and they looked good.
Hillsville was a different story now, no one but the three of us, and the very sleepy team of Clare and Jim. They sprang into action and took care of us for a quick turnaround. Things were jammed up when Curtis discovered a broken spoke nipple on his rear wheel. I had one in my Kevlar spoke kit so he got to work. Of course, then his CO2 gizmo blew up so he used Mike’s pump and we finally rolled about 6 a.m.
Just then Judith and Martin rolled in. They’d had a brevet rider’s nightmare, taking a wrong turn and descending the WRONG SIDE OF THE BLUE RIDGE! On the long climb back up they had to hike around a jackknifed semi that had wrecked after they passed.
Leaving Hillsville we were in a jolly mood and riding well, but soon I tired and fell further and further behind. I rolled into Christiansburg in the rising heat and had a tuna sandwich and Mountain Dew at the control. It was a real disappointment to see the course back-tracked over many miles of yesterday’s route, but at least not the truly horrible climbs near Clifton Forge.
We rolled out together but I was soon solo again and pondering the meaning of life as I broiled on the scary hot white chipseal of Blacksburg Road. I had to drink constantly but didn’t want to run out before I could refill. I soon came upon Curtis and Mike chatting with a friendly farm family who they had begged water from. I joined them and we got a minute’s break in the shade.
A few miles later I saw a lady in her yard and stopped again. By this water leapfrogging I made it to the first store and found Curtis and Mike sitting on the floor surrounded by bottles and ice cream wrappers. I joined them and in a bit Judith and Martin arrived. I loaded my bottles, tube sock, and helmet with ice and we headed out to “cross the Nefud, the sun’s anvil!” to quote Omar Sheriff from Lawrence of Arabia.
From there I rode with Judith and Martin. We formed an amazingly compatible group. We struggled through Fincastle (an old English word meaning stopsign at the bottom of a 20% grade), and met up with Tim and Jim from Florida teaming up for the stretch on US11 into Buchanan. As we rolled up to the control someone noticed the bank thermometer reading 102!! Curtis and Mike were already there, and mentioned they’d seen 103. YAY IT’S COOLING OFF!
Here folks debated pushing on or holing up in Burger King and letting the asphalt firm up again. Judith and I decided to leave and take it very easy until it cooled. This follows the randonneur principle that moving slow is infinitely faster than stopping. Clare and Jim rolled in as we were leaving and told us 15 folks were behind us.
From here we explored how slow one can ride and wove from side to side seeking shade regardless of lane. We finally began to feel some cooling about when we reached US11. This road had been hotly debated before the event, and I was shocked when we first got on it. It is a four lane hwy, usually without shoulder, and when we first hit it traffic was somewhat heavy.
I couldn’t imagine riding it for 50 miles into the night and if I’d actually had a map or known the roads better might have abandoned. I didn’t though, so we pressed on. I thought a lot about the balance between riding and death, but then the traffic disappeared. As it turned out there was almost none for almost all of the way on US11.
This was actually good riding: beautiful views of huge fields (more hay) and the mountains, pretty towns, big rollers but gentle enough to carry momentum up. The miles began to tick away, but there were a lot of them.
After dark we reached Staunton and that was quite an experience. It was about 10 p.m. on Saturday night and US11 is a de facto main street. We were flowing in four-to-six lanes of traffic and changing lanes with the cars. At one light a drunk walked into the intersection and a cop pulled up and grabbed him. I mentioned to Judith that we were crazy! All this excitement made it impossible for me to keep track of my computer error, so I was completely off about how far remained. For the next hour we hoped every exit and glow of lights was Harrisonburg only to be disappointed.
We arrived in town, but could not figure out the last block to the dorm. We asked people on the street and went back and forth, now on the verge of total bonk. Finally Judith found a person who’d heard of the college and we rolled in about midnight.
I was about at the end of my rope and just sat and ate food Jeff and Bob handed to me (thanks!). After considerable debate we decided to get up at 3:45 a.m. (vs 3:30, talk about splitting hairs) and fell out.
Seconds later I was awakened and reeled down stairs to be greeted by Steve “Bones” Matney: “what are you doing up?” I looked at the clock, 3:15 a.m., but couldn’t understand what he meant. Turned out Judith had been woken up by another rider’s arrival and made an executive decision to get us up and moving. Once I realized this I was pretty annoyed, but just stumbled on getting ready to leave. Bob fixed me some pancakes which I supplemented with a donut and we wobbled out. Judith said I would thank her, and she was right.
I discovered my light had died (9 hours is the limit) but it was OK because Martin and Judith pulled. We pedaled up an entirely deserted Route 42 and began to feel better. Except for our bottoms.
At one point I shifted my weight and let out a little yelp, a moment later Judith did the same and I mentioned that anyone listening would get entirely the wrong idea. This stretch was mercifully gentle though, and as the sun rose we had more gorgeous views of valley farms and the surrounding mountains. We made a pit stop at the Edinburg Shell where they told us the previous days high had been 106!!
We rolled into Middletown at 8:30 a.m. and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, but Martin announced he had to stop. He’d reinjured his knee and it was too painful to go on. We discussed rescue options and ice bags, then he insisted we push on.
I applied more Chamois Butter and pulled on a second pair of shorts. We went to the gas station market across the street and got tasty breakfast sandwiches, then turned the cuesheets. Imagine my horror when I saw Route 7/Snickers Gap, and realized we’d be there around midday! I told Judith we had to go, now! I explained there was an ugly climb ahead, not terribly steep but long and exposed. For the next 30 miles we had an amusing game of “Is this the climb? NO!”
Along here we met Chuck and Crista. It was so exciting to see them! I really wanted to stop but we had to move so we exchanged a couple words and pressed on. After the low water bridge I mentioned to Judith to thank Matt for not including Blue Mountain Road, LOL! We stopped there for more ice and started the rollers and small climbs along the Shenandoah.
Traffic on Route 50 was heavy and fast, not giving us an inch of room, which really frightened me in my semi-unhinged state. Coming off that road we saw Bill in his safari hat taking photos. Mount Carmel and Frogtown roads seemed just terribly hard now, and then the ride along the river was more scariness as every local roared down it in their truck.
And then we hit Route 7 – DUNH DUNH DUNH DUH! The Virginia DOT has repaved it and the first section has no shoulder at all, just one foot past the fog line then the side of the mountain. I was totally unnerved as steady traffic hammered by, often within a foot of us. The next section has a shoulder, but was freshly and roughly chip sealed. I didn’t care and rode it, bumps and all. Judith, braver than I, stayed on the fog line. Finally we reached the top and coasted down to Snickersville Turnpike.
We were completely cooked and stopped at the Bluemont Store for rootbeer floats. This worked wonders and we rolled on feeling OK. My double shorts strategy worked too and that issue receded.
Unfortunately the mood was ruined just past the Airmont store. I saw a car back and dropped behind Judith to let them pass. Suddenly beer and glass sprayed past me. The passenger in the car had thrown a beer bottle and hit the back of my helmet. By amazing luck not a piece cut me and I didn’t fall. Unfortunately Judith felt a tiny piece get in her eye, but it didn’t cause an injury. By the time I realized what had happened they were so far up the road neither of us could get a tag number or model. I called 911 but they couldn’t do anything with out it. This totally freaked me out and I stayed behind and to the left of Judith the rest of the way and was constantly looking over my shoulder.
Traffic was crazy Sunday afternoon on Business 7, but eventually we made it to Dry Mill and Leesburg. We dodged traffic onto Route 7 and there it was THE COMFORT INN! WE MADE IT!
It was wonderful to see so many friends come to cheer for us, and see our friends who finished. Like I said earlier, once the ride started I had unbroken fantastic luck. The biggest factor in my success was continuously meeting people to ride with who were going just the right pace to move me along without blowing up, and who had fun, positive attitudes. Tim, Jim, Curtis, Mike, Martin, and Judith really saved the brevet for me!
P.S. It shows how deranged I am that just now thoughts of Tom Rosenbauer’s Pennsylvania 1000K in August came to me. Hmm, I wonder if Mary would do that on the tandem?