Friday, October 9, 2009

A Fabulous Adventure

Endless Mountains 1240 km, 9/30 - 10/4

It has been a week since I rolled into the finish as a "DNF Finisher", and I am still dreaming every night of this ride. I shouldn't be surprised, because I knew beforehand it would become a new high-water mark in my randonneuring apprenticeship. All I can say now is: the apprenticeship continues!

My beloved great-grandmother (she lived until I was 14) had 14 children. Those who reached adulthood (not all of them) were starving in the 1920's in Lower Bavaria, and nearly all of them decided to emigrate to America and to settle in Pennsylvania, in Lancaster County. At some point, nearly all of them died at once in a horrible accident; only Tante Frieda was spared. As a child, I figured Pennsylvania and America were synonyms; and I marveled at the pictures Tante Frieda sent us from that country, where most of the farms had silo towers with astronomy observatories on top:

Sadly, we lost touch with the descendants of Tante Frieda, and my attempts at tracking them down were unsuccessful. But when I learned last year that there would the Endless Mountains 1240k be offered in Pennsylvania in 2009, I felt I had to sign up.

Of course, the other reason for signing up was that the route was advertised as "challenging", with "several steep, extended climbs" (in hindsight: what an understatement!). Being who I am, my only chance to maintain myself in shape or even to progress is to take on a big, threatening challenge; so, there you go. And when coworkers/friends asked me why I was doing this, I replied: "to find out whether I can do it." In some more lucid moments, I reckoned I had at best a 50% chance of succeeding; but the closer I came to the starting date, the more my indomitable optimism made me look at it in terms of "how hard can it be?"

After all, it would be enough to complete three slightly lengthy double centuries (208, 216 and 235 miles) plus less than only a 200k on the fourth day. Granted, they were announced to be very hilly; but then again, I should be able to do them in about 20, 22 and 24 hours respectively, which would still leave enough time to sleep and to finish safely in 90 hours at most (the time limit was 93 hours). And so, I confidently published my projected schedule for this ride to friends and coworkers before I left, so they could compare with the rider tracking on the event's web site.

In the preceding weeks, I had entered the four segments of the route into bikeroutetoaster: Day 1, day 2, day 3 and day 4. I meant to memorize the geography somewhat to make me feel more comfortable with the navigation while following the 18 page long route sheet. Note that the numbers for "ascent" (in bikeroutetoaster's Summary tab) are grossly underestimated, due to the coarse sampling intervals which miss out on many of the short but steep climbs on this route.


On Saturday 9/26 I flew from SFO to JFK to spend the last few days before the start with my grandson. Two things seem to be noteworthy: a) the grandson and his parents battled with cold viruses, and b) I had brought shoes which were unsuitable for the typical long-distance Manhattan pavement walking - which I am not used to at all (with or without stroller), to begin with.

Playing a piano sonata for three hands with my grandson

Now don't get me wrong: I promised myself not to take the virus-fighting and the shin splints as excuses for any lack of performance on the EM1240 and I will keep my promise. It has become clear to me since I looked at the results that even under optimal conditions, I would have been on the wrong side of the 50% likeliness of success (but "Who knows?" the alter ego says, defiantly ...).
Instead, I am mentioning a) and b) only to emphasize how grateful I was throughout the ride that I could do it at all! I might as well have developed a fever etc. before or shortly after the start, and all my preparation would have been for nothing.

Day 1: Quakertown - Hallstead

In last year's Rocky Mountain 1200, I rode much of the second half together with the young Brazilian Henrique Caldas. Since then, we stayed in touch by e-mail and postcards; and when I told him I had signed up for the EM1240, he wrote "We'll ride there together again." - Two months ago, he sent an e-mail titled "The Luckiest Man in the World." Towards the end of a 400k brevet, he got struck by a drunk driver, projected into the middle of the road, and a second car that lost control during braking landed on top of him, upside down.

The car that landed on top of Henrique

Obviously, Henrique could have died twice in that accident; instead, he barely suffered a scratch and didn't have a single broken bone! I was thrilled to see him at the start on that Wednesday morning at 4 a.m.; and of course, we rode most of the day together. He told me all the details he remembered from that accident. Not surprisingly, he still had pain from some unidentified soft-tissue damage; and he told me that he came to this event with the mindset that for him, just being at the start and riding whatever distance he could manage would be akin to a miracle already. Consequently, I am not sure he really bought into my enthusiastic "of course we will finish together!" On the harder climbs, Henrique was usually stronger than I (he needed to keep the momentum going with his bigger gear, while I was limited by my lower sustainable power output) and he had to wait for me on the top. When the terrain was less difficult, I was eager to compensate for the time lost on the climb, and he told me he had trouble keeping up. I only got nervous when it appeared that our control stops and other stops in-between tended to become at least twice as long as I had budgeted. I knew I wanted (and needed) to arrive in Hallstead before midnight in order to maintain my chances for staying within the time limits. But after the Barryville controle (mile 128) we were already late by nearly an hour, in particular because Henrique urged me to also wait for his compatriot Rogerio who had gone ahead earlier in the day, but then got lost twice and now found himself behind ourselves, tired and insecure. Meanwhile, I started shivering uncontrollably - the cold wind in that river valley pierced my Showers Pass jacket and the four layers underneath, as long as I was not moving and just standing around.
When we finally took off, I was in need of getting warm again and determined not to lose any more time. Consequently, I didn't mind pulling my two Brazilian friends into the headwind on the aptly name Towpath Road. Although I focussed on riding as if I was riding alone, the irony of the little old man towing two young studs who could have been his sons, age-wise, wasn't entirely lost on me. My feelings oscillated between satisfaction and worry (or worse) about working too hard on this first day of a big ride.

And now I need to explain how I got to the above picture. I noticed this photographer on the roadside out in the middle of a beautiful nowhere, and I recognized him - in disbelief - only when I passed him: my dear friend John M. from Carlsbad in Southern California, our Team Captain from last year's Flèche offered by the San Diego Randonneurs! He had to go on an unexpected business trip to Allentown, suddenly recalled that this must be around the time of my EM1240, looked it up, hopped into his rental car and drove some 150 miles after us until he caught up - only to take some pictures and to say "Hi!" When I told the story later, it brought tears to the eyes. Thank you, John - your generosity has become an essential part of my "Fabulous Adventure!"

We continued into progressively hillier terrain. On each of the more substantial climbs, I had difficulties following Henrique and Rogerio; and in between, I could catch up and pass them while they were chatting in Portuguese. I didn't hesitate to take some advance when I could, and at some point (not very far from Carbondale, mile 175) they didn't come back to me. I learned later that Henrique broke his chain, requiring a lengthy repair.

I very much appreciated the volunteers in front of the Dunkin Donuts control in Carbondale who saved me from having to buy something (I have never been in a Dunkin Donuts - I would eat donuts only shortly before starving to death). All in all, I had a fairly good ride to the sleep stop in Hallstead, despite very low temperatures, a threat of humidity, and progressively weaker legs. The official arrival picture below doesn't reveal how dissatisfied I was with my arrival time (50 minutes after midnight).

Day 2: Hallstead - Lamar: Part I

This EM1240 was exceptional in many ways, one of which was that we had fabulous rooms and beds in Hampton Inn's every night! In addition, I even happened to be alone in my room in Hallstead. I carefully set the alarms (all two of them) for 3:30 and expected to sleep as soundly as I always do on such occasions. Oh que nenni - wild dreams and jerking up in panic every 15 minutes, that's what it was! At 3:30, I finally felt *really* tired, unable to get up; and so I added another half an hour in bed. That's not at all how I had planned my schedule ...

I think I finally figured out what caused this very unproductive sleep stop. The day before, because of the cool temperatures, I picked several times a cup of hot coffee with my sandwiches or bagels or whatever on control or food stops, because I liked it and because it appeared to be the only hot beverage available. Lesson: Don't do that if you want to sleep during the following night!

The route description says about the beginning of day 2 that "... riders welcome this ~60 mile stretch as a reprieve from all the climbing on day 1. You should be able to bank some time on this stretch, or catch up if you get a late start." So, I wasn't too worried about my late start. Unfortunately, however, I rode out into a steady rain and a noticeable headwind and acknowledged with dismay that I barely exceeded an 11 mph average. In addition, shortly after daylight, the lack of sleep made me become cross-eyed and I had to stop for a 20-minute powernap under a dense tree that had kept the ground underneath dry. Maybe I didn't feed myself properly either in the cold, because I didn't get faster any more on the way to Towanda (mile 282) where I decided to stop at a Burger King - and where I caught up with Henrique who had left Hallstead well before me. We continued together into one of the many particularly beautiful areas of the route; but beautiful on a bike ride typically means hilly. The first major climb was beautiful enough that Henrique drifted effortlessly (or so it seemed) away from me. While I rode alone through the remote area which I had found so difficult to route on bikeroutetoaster, and which really was beautiful, I checked my progression against my planned schedule and the control closure times and I felt more and more discouraged: I just may not be able to make it!

I arrived at the Dushore control, only about 2 hours before closure (that's pretty bad so early in the ride and so late in the day before a long night), in the lowest spirits. Sure enough, I found there Henrique again, but only to miserably announce him that for me the ride was mentally over. Of course, I would continue to ride; but I didn't believe any more that I could do it within the time limit. Reluctantly, Henrique set out for the next 35 miles to Canton without me. I followed him about 20 minutes later.

Because of some more serious climbing and a descent that didn't allow to get paid back for the effort (the route sheet helpfully advised "steep twisty descent. Watch rim temp. Don't go any faster than your guardian angel can keep up with!"), and because of my initially dreary mood which made me ride as if this was my recovery ride, I lost some more time against the control closure times - and didn't care any more. But when I arrived at the Canton control around 9 p.m. and met several other riders there, including Henrique who explained that he had been riding quite hard because he had decided to withdraw at this point, and Henrik S. (FL) who had to end his ride there because of a twisted derailleur hanger, I suddenly felt much better again - in particular after having swallowed a big slice of pizza. Before I could even articulate my temporary loss of belief in success, Henrik deployed some powerful rhetoric to make me continue and to pursue my mission with conviction. In the meantime, Judith L. arrived and said "of course" she would continue and make the Lamar control, 80 difficult miles away. I could tell that she was a much stronger rider than I (she lost time only because she had stayed with friends in trouble); but I would attempt to ride with her anyway and she seemed to appreciate. Before we could leave, Michelle arrived as well and wanted to join us - and so we waited some more. By now, we were past the Canton control closure time; but everybody (including myself!) was optimistic that we would have no trouble making the 80 miles to Lamar in less than nine hours, which was necessary to arrive before the Lamar control closure. The dreary mood was gone; I was upbeat and overjoyed in my delusion to imagine that I still had a good chance of actually finishing this ride!

Day 2: Hallstead - Lamar: Part II

The course notes warned that "the 14 miles shortly after Canton is one of the more challenging parts of the course - there are a countless string of steep rollers that are as hard if not harder than any of the big climbs." This should have been good enough for my mental preparation; but at some point, I still lost it and blurted out "But this is ridiculous!" Imagine at least half a mile of a very steep, risky downhill on a narrow road in complete darkness, then a tight turn and a small bridge to cross at the bottom, and immediately after the bridge, without time to even shift gears, the narrow road suddenly going uphill again for half a mile or more, with a grade that certainly felt like close to 20%. And then repeat it all over, more than a dozen times! I don't know what I would have done alone, there; but with Michelle (who didn't have small enough gears) and Judith (who always waited for us at the top) I felt motivated to give it all. They must have laughed at the rhythmic white steam clouds which appeared in the beam of my helmet light when I stomped uphill, standing in my smallest gear, with the bitter cold mercifully providing anesthesia for the pain in the legs (remember my shin splints from Manhattan? - I did). But I was in a trance and yet fully aware that I lived the most exhilarating moment of my randonneuring career: I was breaking through a barrier, and riding harder than I ever imagined I would be able to. Two days later, at the finish, I would say "Now I don't fear anything any more!"
Unfortunately, those 14 miles took us about two hours, and at this pace we would never make the Lamar control closure. Fortunately, there was a longer fairly easy stretch coming up where we could recover some good time. Unfortunately, it was so cold by now (it sure felt like in the low 30s) that we couldn't take advantage of it: the cold and windchill were too painful to exceed 15 mph where otherwise we could have maintained 25 mph or more without much effort. And unfortunately, Michelle faded (she barely had any sleep at all the night before) and needed to stop more and more often. I believe it was in English Center where she decided to stay a little longer in Harper's Creekside Tavern, while Judith and I pushed on.
At the end of the allegedly very pittoresque stretch through the Little Pine Creek State Park, the "rollers" started again, and I continued trying hard to minimize Judith's slowing down for me. We came to another encouraging and supportive "secret control" in Waterville, and soon afterwards tackled the promised 6 mile long climb. I had convinced Judith that I didn't want her to wait for me - ever - and sure enough, despite my best effort, I was unable to keep her in sight: the climb was too long. I was sure I had well memorized this stretch and its profile during my mental preparation for this ride, because I anticipated that it would be difficult. But now, my memory was blank: it refused to tell me how hard it would still be, and how far away the big descent still was. I had good morale and maintained the motivation from earlier in that night, but I ended up thoroughly confused: the route seemed to turn in big circles, the uphills were much more frequent than the downhills (while already being on top of the big climb), and I was convinced I had been on this road before, but now it was all different from what I remembered and I felt I was lost.
Under these conditions, the long downhill was not much of a pleasure; and shortly after I arrived at the bottom and continued to turn in big circles without actually advancing towards Lamar (or so it felt), I found a rider stopped at the roadside: Judith. "Are we lost?" she said (or something to that effect). OK, at least we were not alone any more. Together, we solved some minor navigational problems and counted down the remaining 15 miles to the Hampton Inn in Lamar. I had once again the conviction that I had been on this road already and anticipated a turn-off which never came. Meanwhile, there was another annoying uphill on the last miles and I didn't feel the need any more to make a special effort - we were close enough. I saw the Hampton Inn sign from afar, made the turn as the route sheet indicated and rode to the hotel entry. Hmm - no bicycles, no cyclists? And the receptionist said she hadn't seen any cyclists at all. Where was I? Oh well, wrong hotel - the Hampton Inn was on the other side of the parking lot. I got my brevet card signed at 7:14 a.m., the minute of the control closure: "It's all good", the volunteer said.

Day 3: Lamar - Pine Grove

I had breakfast with Judith and friends and emphasized that I really needed about 45 minutes of sleep now - it had been an exhilarating ride, but a rough night. I certainly set the alarm, and for no good reason (oh that psychological subconsciousness!) missed to request a wake-up call. And of course, I slept through the alarm ...
Not to panic: Now that I got used to arriving just before control closure, I could manage. I had 93 miles to Mt. Union and about eight hours left to arrive there. The first 16 miles to Loganton were uphill and into a headwind, but I felt good and rode hard. And from then on I had mostly a slight tailwind and advanced well - except for some more climbs sprinkled into the route. I was still in denial when Steve (I believe) stopped for a well-meant interview and admonition, and continued strongly, making up my mind that I would now ride through to the finish, even "hors delay." But slowly, it sank in that there was no way for me to make the Mt. Union control closure; that the organizer didn't want to let me dangle out in the distance, and that I didn't want to be the last one on the road either, for the sake of the volunteers who would have to wait for me or worry about me. And so, when I saw the next sweep vehicle (with Eric) on the roadside, about an hour later, I knew what it meant for me. I was utterly impressed with how well the whole "shuttling forward" fleet was organized, and very grateful for the friendly and supportive attitude of the volunteers who were all making big sacrifices with a smile. Eric handed me off to Maile who handed me off to Janice for the last segment to Pine Grove: a big "Thank You!" from the bottom of my heart to all of them. In the end, spending the time with them traveling, talking about everything, became just another part of a "Fabulous Adventure."

Day 4: Pine Grove - Quakertown

I had a nice dinner in company of volunteers of the Pine Grove control, slept really well for nearly nine hours, and enjoyed a delicious Hampton Inn breakfast, before making myself ready for the last leg, about 120 comparatively mellow miles through the Pennsylvania Dutch area. There was a thick fog outside for the first two or three hours, but the weather forecast was favorable, and I was looking forward to a rewarding ride into the finish. It ended up being even more pleasurable than anticipated.

On the half-way control in New Holland, Rob Welsh caught up with me: he had left Pine Grove an hour after me and was obviously too fast for me to ride with him. He would finish second - in 86:15 hours. By the way, the first finisher needed 83:24 hours - on other 1200's, the first finishers arrive in well under 60 hours! And only 22 out of 48 starters would complete the whole distance within the time limit. Half of the 26 "DNF"s stopped even before me, and only a handful had the ... (call it what you want) to still ride the last 120 miles into the finish.

The most memorable moment came when I approached a village where several dozens of Amish buggies left the parking lot after their Saturday service and, following each other, returned home to their farms. The heavy-footed horses trotted along with a loud and uneven clap-clap-clap, while the wheels with their finger-thin rims on the buggies seemed to fall off imminently. On the slightly rolling terrain, I passed them on the downhills, but they passed me on the uphills where the horses kept their trot while I had to shift down and breathe even harder than the horses: we raced each other, much to the delight of the children in the buggies.

During the second half, I felt some more twinging in the legs (oh those Manhattan shin splints) and also developped a hint of tendonitis in the Achilles tendon - more evidence that even my 600 mile portion (not quite 1000 km) of this ride was hard enough. I never had similar problems on my previous 1200s.

My son had made a weekend excursion to Quakertown, together with his wife, my wife and our grandson, to be present at my arrival and to bring me back to New York on Sunday. I predicted my finish time for 6:30 p.m. and arranged for arriving within the minute. And look how happy I was!


  1. 62.411 pieds, soit plus de 19.000 mètres, c'est presque le double de PBP en dénivelé... une randonnée très difficile!... Bon, je suis contente que tu l'appelles a Fabulous adventure, ça veut dire que tu n'es pas trop fâché, ni avec toi-même, ni avec la Pennsylvanie de Tante Frieda... J'attends la suite pour en apprendre davantage!

  2. A very moving account, Joe. You might remember me as the guy you saw in the parking lot late Sunday morning in Quakertown when we are all about to leave. Your grandson is adorable. I love that picture of you playing the piano.

    I found the infamous "Canton rollers" scary enough in broad daylight. I cannot imagine riding them in the dark, as you did.

    Having had a few DNFs of my own on brevets, I can relate to how you feel. But even when I don't succeed, I always learn something for next time. Thanks for spending the time to write about your experiences.

    Good luck on future rides,

    Jud Hand

  3. This was obviously a hugely difficult ride, and I'm not surprised you were challenged by it. I've heard it said that we learn more from those that got away than from all the times when things go perfectly.

    It's terrific that you continued riding to the end after getting sagged forward. What a terrific experience.

    What event was it that your relatives who migrated to the states succombed to? What it some sickness?

    Hope to get the chance to ride with you again soon!

  4. J'ai mis longtemps à m'apercevoir que tu avais raconté la suite! C'est vraiment un 1200 très difficile, et ton récit me donne tellement envie d'y être! ... Incroyable, quels 1200 notre vieux PBP a fait naître... c'est beau!
    Bravo pour tout Joseph, ton courage, ta volonté, ta modestie et ton esprit de camaraderie. Un vrai randonneur!