DC Randonneurs Many Rivers and Fords 600 km Brevet

A very brief history of my previous experience with 600 km brevets, in case you haven't memorized all my old ride reports:

In 2010 I rode the inaugural version of this brevet, and it reached 95 degrees on the first day, and I melted like an exceptionally wicked witch. Stan and I made it back to Warrenton about 3:30 a.m., and my hands and butt hurt so much I just couldn't bear to start riding again, let alone on very little sleep.

In 2011 I changed an excessively worn chain the night before the 600, not realizing that it had worn the cassette and chainrings to the point where a new chain would skip constantly, and quit in disgust about 20 miles into the ride.

So, basically, 0-for-2.

In 2012, I haven't had a good cycling year. I've already driven to work 5 times (after biking all 234 work days last year), I've gained back half the weight I lost last year (and feel it on every hill), and I've only taken two rides over 25 miles: a 200 km brevet and a 300 km brevet. I couldn't make myself ride the 400 with forecast temperatures in the 90s, two weeks after dehydrating myself on the 300. Yet I felt so lame after skipping it, I was compelled to at least attempt the 600.

My completely inadequate on-bike preparation complete, I turned to off-bike preparation. Most of that consisted of frantically checking the weather forecast every couple of hours, hoping it would be cooler. And I also registered for Twitter so that I could theoretically tell the rest of the club where I was at each control, in the unlikely event that I remembered how to type "#dcr600k" on a dumb phone where the '#' key does not actually make a '#' character. And because I'd run out of water on the recent 300, I brought two 33-ounce Zefal Magnum bottles full of Gatorade and a 70 ounce Camelbak almost full of water.

For my non-Randonneur American reader(s) (if any), 600 km is 372.8 miles. Unfortunately VDOT doesn't build roads with exact brevet distances in mind, so our route was 378.1 miles. There's a course map here.

I usually don't get a hotel room before a local ride, preferring to just get up way too early and drive to the start, but since I might not get to sleep much Saturday night, I figured getting an extra hour of sleep before the ride was worth the money. I dropped off my daughter at her grandparents' Friday night, stayed for dinner (carbo loading his been pretty thoroughly debunked in the scientific literature lately, but my Mom made both stuffing and mashed potatoes anyway), and got to the Hampton Inn around 6:30. I showed my lights and stylish reflective gear to the tech inspectors, signed some waivers, got my brevet card, and went upstairs to sleep. But of course I couldn't actually fall asleep at 7 p.m., so I watched the US national soccer team play Antigua and Barbuda, hoping for a boring blowout that would put me right to sleep. Unfortunately the game was more interesting than expected (though nowhere near as good as Poland vs. Greece earlier in the day), so I didn't fall asleep until about 10.

I set my alarm clock to 3:30, plenty of time to make it to the 4:00 start, since the commute was about 50 feet and the paperwork and my bike were all ready. Unfortunately, the hotel alarm clock didn't work. Fortunately, I woke up at 3:35 anyway. The hotel's complimentary hot breakfast didn't start until 6, so I ate a piece of bread with some peanut butter on it, made sure my bike worked, and listened to ride organizer Lynn's pre-ride spiel. She said we should start the second day's loop by 4 a.m. Saturday to avoid traffic and heat. Remembering two years ago when I barely got back to the hotel before 4 a.m., this sounded unlikely.

My plan at the start was to find a group that was going about 16-17 mph: fast enough to make some progress while I was fresh and there was no heat or traffic to worry about, but not fast enough to use much energy. And fast enough to maybe get in front of some strong riders who decided to take it slower at first, who I might end up riding with later. Surprisingly, all the fast people were being very conservative at the start, so the front group turned out to be slow enough for me. Except on the downhills: I'm a pretty cautious descender, especially in the dark, so I kept almost getting dropped on the downhills then pulling back up. At some point, Lothar (who's way, way, way faster than me but was sandbagging at the back of the group behind me, saving energy in preparation for taking off at warp speed and finishing the two-day ride in one day), pulled out and passed me, leaving me last in the group. He must have figured out that I was about to fall off the lead pack before I did, because five minutes later a big enough gap opened after a downhill that I realized resistance was futile, and let the front group go. It was mile 24, there were 10 riders in front of me and 20-some riders behind me, and it was just bright enough to read my cue sheet without a light.

With the group gone, my primary concern went from hanging on to navigation: 378 miles are quite enough and I didn't need any extra, thanks. My secondary concern was nutrition: don't forget to eat and drink early, potentially leading to dehydration or bonk later. My third concern was the Dog Alert mentioned on the cue sheet at mile 37. So I double-checked the cue sheet, drank a bunch of Gatorade even though I wasn't thirsty yet, and kept my eyes open for big mean fast uphill dogs. I didn't see any dogs, but I did see a huge (for a fox) red fox bounding across a field and the road and another field, well in front of me. Made me wish I carried a camera, but I know that if I tried to take pictures while riding I'd crash, and that if I stopped to take pictures I'd lose too much time, so I resist the urge to bring one. (I guess I could use a helmet-cam for the full-on Borg nerd effect, but I don't trust anything invented after 1995.)

I heard some riders coming up behind me, just as I saw a bunch of deer (still not dogs) off in a field beside the road. So I started giving deer alerts to riders who were probably still too far behind to actually hear what I was saying. Luckily the deer stayed off the road. The group eventually caught me and turned out to be Bill, Maile, Jose, George W., Rick, and Rick. I had ridden with all of them before except for one of the Ricks, but I didn't recognize the other Rick until I saw him with his helmet off at a control later in the day. George disappeared soon after; I guess the group was too fast for his liking. I thought this was also too fast a group for me to stick with long-term, but I could ride with them for a while and cover some extra miles before it got hot.

A few miles later, we went down a hill fast with Bill leading and me second, and a deer jumped out of the woods and ran across the road in front of Bill. It looked really close to me, but he told me it wasn't that close, so I must have been the victim of parallax or Phantom Dog Alert Fever or something. Luckily that deer didn't have any friends following it to collect us, and we rolled into the 53 mile control at Wolftown Mercantile without incident. Ed and Mary were still there, but the rest of the front group that had dropped me had just left. I was pretty happy with my pace, but then I'm always still irrationally happy 53 miles into a ride. Woo-hoo, almost 20% done and not even in pain yet.

I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast, so I ate a Gu packet. (Mmmm, caffeinated sugary goop with artificial flavors.) I also bought more Gatorade, refilled my bottles, and forced myself to drink the rest. It was full daylight, so I turned off my lights and stowed my reflective gear and my arm warmers (which had been rolled down to wrist warmers for about 40 miles), and left with the same group a few minutes later. Since there were at least 3 Professional Randonneurs in the group (Bill's done multiple 1200s, Maile had ridden a 600 the previous weekend, one of the Ricks had done freaking RAAM, etc.) I figured I had no navigational or pace-setting responsibilities and just needed to keep eating, keep drinking, and avoid crashing until this group dropped me and I had to start thinking for myself again. At one point one of the Ricks dropped us all and I thought he was gone for good, but then we caught him again later. Traffic was light, it wasn't too hot yet, and we reached the 96 mile control at Plank Road Exchange in Batesville and sat down for lunch. I had an excellent sandwich and some ice cream. It was a very nice place to stop: good food, good service, clean bathroom, etc. Highly recommended if you're ever in that remote corner of Virginia.

Almost a century in, and nothing hurt at all. There was another Dog Alert on the cue sheet at mile 107, but again no dogs. It started to warm up (the high was 88 Saturday) and I started getting a wee bit tired. One of the Ricks slipped off the back, and then we reached the first big nasty hill of the ride, around mile 122 near Howardsville. I went up the hill at 3-4 mph and everyone else went up at skinny cyclist speed and dropped me. Normally that would be the last I'd see of the group, but there was a control right after that hill, which let me catch back up. We dawdled a bit at the store and Rick rejoined us, then I decided to change my gloves for clean ones right as everyone else left, so I had to chase for a bit. I was fine for about 10 more miles after that, then the heat started to take its toll and I started falling off the back of the group. I fought it for a while, falling off on uphills and catching up on downhills, but then I started slipping behind on the flats too, and decided to let the group go around the 135 mile mark, slow down to a pace I could comfortably sustain (only 13 mph), and force myself to eat and drink a lot in case I was dehydrated or bonked rather than just hot and tired.

I remembered a grocery store in Palmyra at the 151 mile mark, and decided I'd stop there to replace my warm water and Gatorade with ice water and cold Gatorade, and maybe eat something salty. But then I saw the group that had dropped me off on the side of the road with Dave S. and a cooler. We had been gifted a rest stop with cold water, Coke, and chips. Maile asked if I wanted them to wait for me, but I didn't think was recovered enough to match their speed, so I told them to go ahead. I spent about 15 minutes in the shade, which helped a bit, and then headed for the Louisa dinner control at slightly better speed (14 mph). No other riders caught up while I was there, so even though I was feeling slow and tired, at least I knew I was still in the middle of the pack not the rear.

I pulled into Louisa at dinnertime. Maile had said they'd probably be at Roma, and Italian is good bike food, so I checked there. I saw Bill's bike and Ed and Mary's tandem, but none of the rest. Turns out Bill had gone off the front of the group to catch the tandem, while the rest had decided to eat somewhere quicker. I got a way-too-big steak and cheese sandwich and managed to eat most of it, then (eventually) left following Ed and Mary and Bill. I didn't think I'd be able to stick to them for long, but every mile I could draft them 17 mph was a mile I wouldn't have to ride at 14 mph, which would get me to sleep earlier. (I was way too tired to do the actual math, but I understood the general concept.)

The next few hours are kind of a blur in my memory. We proceeded with the tandem in front, then Bill, then me bringing up the rear. Tandems go really fast downhill (even faster than fat cyclists), not quite so fast uphill. My body wanted to go 13-14 mph with a lot of coasting, but my mind wanted to stick to the faster riders as long as possible so I could finish faster so I could go to sleep earlier. And also so I could avoid having to navigate at night while tired and take a very very wrong turn and end up as an extra in Deliverance 2: Electric Banjoloo. I was afraid to draft Bill too closely out of fear that I was too tired to avoid hitting his wheel, so I wasn't saving as much energy as usual from the draft. But I just kept telling myself that I had to stick to the insanely fast cruel taskmaster wheels ahead for ten more miles, then I could drop off and ride slowly and coast the downhills. I asked if we could stop at Bakers Store at mile 202 (25 miles into the ordeal) to turn off our lights and put on our reflective gear and refill our bottles (and so that my legs could be blissfully free of having to push for five minutes, though I didn't say that part out loud) and Mary agreed as long as that was our only stop. Of course I was free to stop as much as I wanted after I dropped off the back, which I figured would be pretty soon, so I was happy with that and ate and drank and refilled and was just about to flip my cue sheet when the tandem started rolling. Oh well, I don't need to navigate, just pedal.

A few minutes later it got dark. Unfortunately, it didn't cool off right away, but it did eventually. I kept checking my odometer periodically to see when my ten-mile torture interval was up and I'd let myself fall off the group and proceed at a more reasonable pace. But whenever the ten miles were up, I somehow decided to re-enlist in the chain gang for another ten miles. All my pressure points were hurting, and I just wanted to be off the bike. I never saw the last page of Saturday's cue sheet, because we never stopped so I could flip it. I hoped every light would be red so that I could have a little break, and luckily most of them were. (One of them had a sensor that wouldn't detect our bikes at all, so we had to treat it as a stop sign and run it when it was clear. I was kind of tempted to suggest that we wait there until a car came up behind us to trip it, hopefully in an hour or two, but I figured that wouldn't go over well.) At some point I realized that I'd stopped eating and drinking and that this was a very bad idea, so I forced myself to choke down some warm Gatorade and eat half a Clif Bar. I think this is the first time I ever only ate half of a Clif Bar, but some wildlife probably appreciated the other half. But, even though I really really didn't want any food, I think it was just enough to keep the bonk away.

We went through Brandy Station and Elkwood and Remington and then, finally, through Ye Olde Historic Downtowne Warrenton and down a screaming descent toward the hotel. Somehow I'd managed to hang on to the back of the pain train for 65 miles. We got to the hotel around 11. If I'd ridden alone from Louisa I probably would have got there around 12:30 or 1. So Ed and Mary and Bill probably got me at least an extra hour of sleep. Thanks guys. I was just happy to be done.

I got my card signed at the front desk, went up to my room, showered, remembered my alarm clock didn't work, and hit the "wake up call" button on the hotel phone. That didn't work either; it sent me to voice mail. So I dialed the front desk instead and asked for a 4:30 wake up call. I felt bad enough that I didn't know if 5.5 hours would be enough, but I was pretty sure that less would not, and waking up then going back to bed would just decrease the total amount of rest I got.

It was a very weird night's sleep. I was exhausted enough that I should have slept like a rock, but instead I woke up periodically with a weird recurring dream that I no longer remember. When the phone rang at 4:30 I got up and thought about whether to actually get going, or sleep some more. I felt a lot better, but was moving in slow motion, so it took me until 5:15 to get the bike and car packed and get on the road. I spent a while rereading the cue sheet and looking at gaps between controls and thinking about ditching the Camelbak, but there was a long stretch in the afternoon heat that had me worried so I wore it, but decided not to fill it up until the second control. The one nice part about such a late start was that it was already getting light, so while I needed the headlight and taillights and reflective gear for safety, I could leave my cue-sheet reading light in the car.

I hadn't coordinated start times with anyone, and when I started there were no other cyclists in sight. I didn't know if I was behind the entire field, or just most of them. But I was feeling surprisingly good. The sleep plus cool temperatures plus enough time for my digestion to sort itself out had me flying along the flats at 15-16 mph. Not exactly fast, but way faster than I thought I'd be doing after 240 miles. The first control at the Garrisonville 7-11 at mile 265 (25 miles from the hotel) had a closing time of 8:28, and I got there around 7:15. Better yet, there were a whole bunch of riders there when I arrived, so I wasn't that far off the back. And John Z. arrived after me, so I wasn't even quite the last to leave the hotel. I didn't get through the control quite fast enough to leave with the big herd, but I resolved to push a bit while it was cool and try to catch up with Nick, who I knew had a precisely calculated schedule that would get him to the end within the time limit. So as long as I was with him or ahead of him, I too would get to the end within the time limit, without doing any of my own math.

I caught and passed David J. before the next control. He looked pretty good, but he was behind Nick (and therefore not going fast enough to be guaranteed to finish in time) so I kept going and he didn't speed up to join me. I caught a big horde of riders at the 284-mile control at a 7-11 somewhere in a newly-yuppified area of Stafford County a few miles outside Fredericksburg, near the Leeland Station commuter train stop. I went through the control pretty fast and left before many of the riders who were there before me, the classic "passing in the pits" maneuver. Then I headed across the Rappahannock and through Fredericksburg, where we had a whole lot of turns packed close together. Luckily traffic was light and I managed to get out of town toward the battlefield park without getting lost or hit by a bus.

The road surface in Fredericksburg Battlefield Park is rough pavement with loose stones sprinkled on top. I'm not sure if this is some kind of low-bidder federal government thing, or if they actually hate road cyclists, but it's just awful to ride on with 25mm tires. It saps your energy, and the lack of traction is a bit scary on every downhill. The park is quite nice otherwise, shady and low-traffic. I got to the information control, and George M. was there, resting. I lent him my pen to fill out his card because he couldn't find his, and then I headed out. The route took the battlefield road until it dead-ended at a barrier, then went off-road down some singletrack. Now, we have our share of gravel roads on brevets, but actual singletrack was a first. It wasn't difficult singletrack, mind you; if I were on a mountain bike with fat tires and suspension and didn't have 295 miles worth of pain in my butt I might even call it leisurely beginner-friendly singletrack, but I was on a road bike and my butt wasn't in the mood for any hard bumps, so I took it really really slowly. (I didn't get off and walk, though. A man has to have standards.)

After a fifth of a mile of off-roading the route went back onto pavement, toward Caroline County. After leaving the shady park, the sunny roads were quite hot, and I was back into hating being on my bike mode. But I was near mile 300, and also near the halfway point of the second day's riding, so there was no point in turning around. I just kept doing math to make myself feel better "only 80 miles to go" or "80% done with the brevet" or "only 75 miles until I get to yell at Lynn for making me ride singletrack on my road bike." There was another information control at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, which featured a bathroom and water fountain. (And I got to write down the number of some regiment to prove I'd been there.) Then I got to ride a particularly bad 5 miles on VA 408 toward Spotsylvania Courthouse, with lots of traffic blowing by. My mood was getting surly enough that I feared I was dehydrating or bonking or heat exhausting, but I really didn't have much appetite. Luckily the control was coming up because I really needed a break.

I got confused about where I wanted to stop and ended up overshooting the Valero Fasmart at mile 317 a bit and pushing my bike back down the shoulder. It was a slightly faster crowd than the one I'd seen earlier in the day: Lloyd and Chris M. and John and Cindy on their tandem. All were leaving before me, and all left me free water and ice. I remembered to get a receipt since it was an open control, and drank a vile (but very cold) blue Slush Puppy, and ate something, and stood in the shade, and saw just how much free ice I could cram into my Camelbak, and my mouth, and my helmet. Basically I played with ice for about ten minutes, until the next riders (George W. and Mike W.) came up. Then I grudgingly let them have the rest of the precious ice (I seriously considered buying more bags of ice and swimming in them until they melted then repeating until someone called the cops; I guess I was kind of warm), and got back on my bike.

After leaving the wonderful oasis of Fasmart, I returned to the nasty road with too many cars and not enough shade. But at least I had ice in my Camelbak, which meant that my reward for sucking down warm plasticky-tasting water for a couple of seconds was tooth-freezing ice cold water for as long as I wanted. (Until it finally ran out, but then I had two big bottles of Gatorade to keep me from spontaneously combusting until I could find more ice.) I slowly rode along thinking about ice until George caught me from behind. We couldn't really talk because there was so much traffic, and then he pulled off into the park to get water, so I was alone again. I continued alone for a while longer and then George caught me again at a red light. Clearly I wasn't going very fast if I kept getting caught from behind, but at least I was moving. We got onto less busy roads so we could chat a bit, which distracted me from how miserable I felt. We stopped again at Myers Grocery at mile 343, and I got more free ice (left by an unknown previous rider) plus a Coke and some ice cream bars and a few minutes in the shade. I think that finally helped me recover, and I was a bit more clear-headed for the rest of the day. My hands and my saddle area hurt, but my legs and my stomach were fine.

We went down familiar roads past Kellys Ford and toward Warrenton. A truck carrying a wide load of straw bales passed George way too close (I think the driver probably didn't realize how wide his load was, rather than doing it on purpose, but that's no excuse) but didn't quite hit him. The last part of the ride was pretty hilly. I had more left in my legs than George, but he had more left in his brain than me, so I mostly stayed behind him so he could navigate. I had no appetite but forced myself to eat a Gu packet about 10 miles from the end, because bonking on the last hill would be embarrassing. We ran into Roger running an informal water stop a few miles from the finish, but we had enough water, so we chatted a bit then took off. The last few miles of the course were quite hilly and there was one last information control just in case we hadn't scribbled enough, then we were into Warrenton. We finished at 6:16 p.m., almost two hours ahead of the limit. A big group came in 45 minutes behind us, making it by an hour — that was probably Nick's exact planned schedule. I'd had no appetite for the last few couple hours of the ride, but a few minutes after stopping I was recovered enough to eat a slice of pizza.

Thanks to Lynn and her crew of excellent volunteers for running the ride, to everyone who rode with me, and to everyone who left ice behind for slower riders.

My reward for finishing the 600 is that I have to ride a fall 400 to get a Super Randonneur series in this year. I'll probably do Matt Settle's new ROMA fall 400 route in September, with a fallback option of the North Carolina 400 in early October.

Stuff to remember for next year's 600:

Don't ride 600 km in 90 degree weather at 215 pounds. If I'd been 20 pounds lighter (like I was for last year's 600), I would have finished a lot stronger. If it had been 5 degrees hotter (like it was two years ago), I probably wouldn't have finished at all. It's nice to climb faster, but not dying in the heat is a much more important reason to lose the extra insulation.

Get a haircut before a long hot ride. As short as possible without needing to worry about sunburn. (I do not like sunscreen above the eyes. It burns!) This helps with heat and avoids those embarrassing helmet hair photos.

Buy another white jersey. Okay, I'll admit I haven't actually covered myself in temperature sensors and measured the difference, but I'm convinced that the white jersey and white helmet help a bit.

Bring the Camelbak, but don't start the ride with it full. Fill it up around 11 a.m. to avoid carrying 4 unnecessary pounds on your back all morning. (Make a note on the cue sheet so you don't forget to fill it.)

Two alarm clocks.

Try Desitin for the sweat-induced skin irritation. (I did this 600 with no skin goop at all. I usually use Lantiseptic, which helps with the kind of abrasion you get from rubbing back and forth across your saddle, but not so much with sweat-induced problems.)

The extra pair of gloves was a good idea. Next year, go with even more spare gloves, and also try changing shorts halfway through each day. Clothes are light.