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Ride report: RUSA Moss Beach 200k (7/7/2012)

I faithfully send my $20 dues to Randonneurs USA every year, but I rarely participate in their events. More often than not, they conflict with some aspect of my training schedule. And the "entry-level" brevet is a full 200 kilometers, which of course is the ultimate challenge -- not the first step -- in my annual Distance Training rides.

But the stars aligned this week, and Santa Cruz Randonneurs happened to be presenting a 200km event on a date that worked for me. Just one problem, though: The route was hilly. Up and down Highway 1 with a diversion into La Honda to climb Haskins Hill, which I'd tackled for the first time only a few weeks ago. But emboldened by my performance on a partial Climb to Kaiser last weekend, I hit the road to Santa Cruz at 4:30 a.m. Saturday ... although I had, perhaps unwisely, done a hilly 40-mile ride just the previous afternoon.

One thing is different about brevets right away: The starting location and the ending location often aren't the same place. In Santa Cruz, the difference isn't all that huge -- less than 2 miles -- but it adds another layer of logistical complexity. Some folks park near the start and then ride back at the end of the day, but for me, when my ride is done, it's done. So I parked at the finish instead -- as several other riders were doing when I arrived -- and did the short ride on the just-barely-light-enough-to-ride streets of Santa Cruz to the lighthouse.

Check-in consists of signing a waiver and receiving one's brevet card: the important document that you must carry with you the entire day and fill out at the checkpoints, or controls, in order to receive credit for completing the event. At each control, you do something like get a timestamped store receipt or answer a question about the location. This is how you prove to the organizers that you actually rode the entire route. (There are, of course, ways to circumvent this, but that wouldn't be very sporting now, would it. And at least one other rider would notice and say something.) I carefully put my brevet card in a plastic bag and placed it in my Camelbak.

There's another aspect to the route: the cut-off times. RUSA has specific time limits on its rides, and they're elapsed time limits. This means that the clock is running no matter what you're doing, be it riding, eating, resting, or anything else. And even if the actual route is slightly longer, there's also no extra time. (Today's route was actually 207km.) There's also no allowance for terrain; for a 200km event, the limit is always 13.5 hours, regardless of how hilly it is. My last official RUSA 200km brevet was in 2008, and my time was 11:14. (True randonneurs will say that it's about finishing and camaraderie, not about the time ... just like ALC is a ride and not a race. But the times of every RUSA finisher are dutifully recorded and are usually online for all to see for eternity.)

After a brief safety speech, our group of about 30 randonneurs was on the road at precisely 6 a.m. Much to our pleasure, there was no fog, there was no wind, and temperatures were in the lower 50s.

The route was almost entirely old hat for me. ALC, of course, goes down Highway 1, and I've been up Highway 1 both on my own and as part of other RUSA events. It's a "lumpy" route without big hills but which quickly builds up the climbing stats. The front group of serious, time-focused riders quickly headed off into the distance, leaving the rest of us to jockey for position. Some of us would fly forward on descents; others would recover time on the short climbs. There was a lot of back-and-forth and, much to my surprise, no significant pacelining (which RUSA does not prohibit, as long as the paceline consists only of riders on that event).

Alas, my stomach was not a happy stomach this morning. Some combination of the early hour and the previous night's Chinese take-out had left my stomach in a confused state where I took a pink bismuth before the ride. I started to think that a toilet might be good idea, and as I approached the Gazos Creek turnoff at mile 25, I had planned to use the portapotty that was at the mini-mart when we used it as a rest stop on DBD1 last autumn. But today, it was gone ... and the Gazos Grill next door appeared to be out of business. (This could give me some additional grief in planning the route for DBD2.)

So I pressed forward another 8 miles into Pescadero, where my store receipt indicates a time of 8:10, well ahead of the 9:36 cutoff time. We got there by taking Gazos Creek and Cloverdale roads, which are certainly a lower-traffic alternative to Highway 1 ... but one with a couple of rather steep pitches that were mercifully brief. On my previous visit to Pescadero, I had found a porta-potty behind a local church, and making prompt use of it today, I was no longer in quite as much gastric displeasure.

Next came the northbound ride up Stage Road to Pescadero and beyond to rejoin Highway 1: three nasty hills. I took them as gingerly as I could, knowing that there was plenty more climbing to come later in the day. By now, our group had become so dispersed that I saw only a couple of other riders, a couple of whom I passed, and another couple of whom flew right by me on the descent as if I was standing still. (Strava reports that I set a personal record on my descent into San Gregorio, but that I'm still ranked number 1,612 out of 1,745.)

The return to Highway 1 heralded the beginning of the mostly-flat section of the ride, through Half Moon Bay, up to the turnaround point at Moss Beach, and back. The north wind was still mercifully light, but the fog had rolled in, making for a chilly, moist mix. I thought this was the part of the ride where I would be the happiest, but I turned out to be wrong. The lumpy part of the route had at least given me short breaks where I could coast down hills; the flat route offered few such rests. When I arrived at mile 58 in Moss Beach, I still was doing mostly OK; my receipt time was 10:10 compared to the cutoff time of 12:12.

But with so many miles behind me already, what did I buy in the store? A sandwich? A snack? Nope. A gallon jug of water. And that was it. (It was cheaper than buying a chilled bottle, and I was able to share it with the few other riders who were also there.) I was drinking my Perpetuem, and I had a Clif Bar, but I was clearly running a heavy calorie deficit. I was focused on having a lunch of Subway comfort food when I returned through Half Moon Bay, and I was forgetting to eat enough before that.

Now, our route went south. But there still wasn't much wind, so there was hardly any benefit to be had. And it was still chilly and foggy. This was the new part of the route for me, between Half Moon Bay and Moss Beach, and it was, to put it mildly, singularly unexciting. Traffic was heavy, there was little scenery to be seen, and there were just enough traffic signals to disrupt one's pace. As I rolled into the shopping center in Half Moon Bay, it had happened again: I had become grumpy.

At the Subway, there was already a short line. Then, a family of three walked in the front door just as I was about to do so, and the thought of waiting for three more people's sandwiches to be prepared made me even grumpier. Then, when they couldn't decide what to order, I began a slow boil. The event clock was running! After nine minutes in line, I finally got my sandwich (only a six-inch sub, since I didn't want to run the risk of further antagonizing my stomach), and the Sandwich Artist™ skipped me ahead of the family, who were still trying to figure out what kind of sauce they wanted on Little Billy's Kid-Meal Extravaganza. I took my sandwich outside and ate, but I wasn't happy at all. And the various colorful characters of Half Moon Bay weren't helping my mood much, either.

I finally got back on the road. But I hadn't used the restroom at Subway because I didn't want to leave my bicycle unattended, so I made it only about 5 miles before I stopped at a beach parking lot. And while it still wasn't sunny, the temperature had finally risen to the point that I started to shed some of my clothing: the base layer and the arm warmers under my bright-green, RUSA-friendly jacket. Cooling down a bit, and having some more Clif Bloks, seemed to improve my mood somewhat, and I tackled the big climb up Highway 1 to the Stage Road turnoff.

As soon as I got just one mile inland, the sun came out. As I continued inland along Highway 84, things began to get noticeably warm. By the time I reached the third control in La Honda, I was sweating profusely, and I finally removed my jacket. (What? I couldn't have been bothered to stop by the roadside for just a minute to remove it earlier?) With a receipt time of 12:23 and no more scheduled controls, I did the math and realized that I had seven full hours to complete the final 44 miles of the route, so I gave myself permission to stop stressing about being a dreaded DNFer. But I still wasn't practicing proper nutrition; my entire purchase was one can of V-8 juice, with the rest of my second Perpetuem bottle on the side.

I started to think about my next time goal of the day: beating my previous 200km time of 11:14. That would be almost five hours for 44 miles, which seemed doable enough. What about 10 hours? That might be a little more difficult. But at La Honda, I had a seismic shift in thinking: Today's ride was no longer just about finishing; it was about finishing strongly. The mood shift was subtle but significant.

Haskins Hill was the next challenge. While it was tough -- and seemingly never-ending -- it really didn't bother me all that much, perhaps because it was similar to the hills I'd just tackled near Fresno the weekend before. The return trip down Cloverdale and Gazos Creek roads was over quickly enough, and I was back at Highway 1, where I stopped at the Gazos Creek mini-mart for another bottle of water and a giant bag of salted peanuts. The restroom inside the mini-mart was still "out of order" (although I didn't ask; I think that's just a ploy to keep non-customers from using it).

And then something nice happened. The wind picked up. And not just a little bit; it picked way up, almost as strong as it had been on ALC11 Day 1 just one month ago. I started to fly (at least by my standards) down Highway 1, exceeding 30 mph on several occasions. Except for a quick toilet break at Greyhound Rock (the site of ALC's Rest Stop 3), I did the final 25 miles non-stop ... and I did so even just a little bit faster than I did on ALC11.

I was way, way ahead of my 10-hour goal. Was 9.5 hours doable? Now that was going to be close. Alas, as soon as I hit the Santa Cruz weekend traffic, it was not to be. I waited at red lights, and at the left turn from Mission onto King, I actually had to dismount and walk across the street because traffic was so heavy that I wouldn't have been able to safely negotiate the left turn at a non-signalized intersection. And after I rolled in to the finish line, I stopped to turn off my Strava recording ... but my phone started to act slow and wonky, and I lost another minute in just doing that and hoping that I hadn't lost my recording of the ride. After I walked my bike into the finish area in the organizers' back yard, I received my official time: 3:33 p.m., for an elapsed time of nine hours and 33 minutes. (And it was a nice touch that Lois, who earlier had completed the worker's ride, was wearing her ALC11 victory shirt as she greeted us.)

My signed brevet card now goes off to France and the offices of the Audax Club Parisien, which will certify my results, affix a numbered sticker to the card, and record it in their giant book of all official brevet results worldwide since 1921. I should receive my official card back in the mail sometime around ... wait for it ... December.

My pace for the day? A surprisingly strong 15.6 mph, on very hilly terrain.

So, what did I learn from this experience?

-- I still haven't got this on-the-bike nutrition thing down right. I had enough food both before and after the ride that I didn't end the day grumpy, but I had a serious dip in the middle of the day that was just a hair shy of bonking. The time pressure was of my own making, of course, but even using pricey high-tech sports nutrition wasn't enough.

-- The hilly terrain didn't bother me nearly as much as I expected. I don't really want to think that I'm "good" at hills now (especially the descents), but at least they're tolerable. This is a good sign for DBD.

-- I could probably do another 300km brevet if I wanted. (I did so once, in 2010, and it was generally a very trying day.) The key would be to pace myself. Unfortunately ... or fortunately ... this year's Santa Cruz 300km event conflicts with a DBD2 training ride.

-- On both of my previous RUSA events, I was firmly near the back of the pack at the finish. This time, I was firmly in the middle. That's probably about as good as I'll ever get, and I think I'm OK with that.

On the morning after, as I write this, I'm feeling mostly OK, although my legs still tingle a bit. I haven't decided for sure whether to go out for a short ride today, but I'll probably do so ... even if it's only a trip to the bike shop to get my rear shifter cable readjusted after last weekend's replacement.

If you completed my Altamont Pass Double Metric, you can do a 200km brevet. It's an experience that I highly recommend: It exposes you to another group of non-ALC endurance riders (with some overlap, of course!), the rules have a small added layer of formality that's an interesting change of pace, and you might even get to see some new scenery. San Francisco Randonneurs has three 200km events coming up this fall. A $20 annual membership in Randonneurs USA qualifies you to buy a fancy medal for each event that you complete, and it gets you "American Randonneur," a very informative quarterly magazine that keeps you in the mind-set of endurance riding year-round.

But for me, it's now time to shift into the DBD2 training season, where we reset at 40 miles and build from there. The ride is less than three months away!