Monday, October 06, 2008

Optimism trumps the day, A2A 2008

It should have be obvious from the start that the optimism and high spirits of my car ride from Atlanta into Athens with the Starykowiczs, and Starkowicz-to-be, Daniel would be what it took for me to leg out my third best time in seven successful 87-mile, A2A adventures. Truly this event is beyond racing, this is traveling. Our ride the day before the race was filled with jokes, stories and plans for races to come. All thought of pain and endurance was put on hold as the rolling countryside succumbed to the flattening effect of riding in an SUV.

Each year there seems to be a small but ever-changing cadre of Team Rainbo members showing up to test themselves against the Georgian, hills, heat and headwind and this year was no exception. This year was slightly different as there were no novices among us. Half this crew of skaters, Pete Starykowicz and Marcy Turek, came to show what they were made of. Tom Grosspietsch and I came to hold what we were made of together. For me this would be the challenge of the day as having taken a serious, helmet-smashing fall a week earlier, I was on race morning still experiencing bouts of dizziness. Had I also not been fighting the remains of a head cold I might have rethought attacking the 40 mph downhills lurking throughout the course while also struggling to control my equilibrium.

Be that as it may I came to the starting line with a shit-eating grin of determination as Tom and I tried to buck each other up. Not even Eddy in a bee costume, which he wore through the first ten yards of the race, lightened the mood much. I promised to stay with Tom and finish together then promptly dropped him after the zigzag route out of Athens. Sorry Tom. A few miles out of town is where the pace lines really settle into a nice groove and this is where you can tell if you are with the right group or not. Usually there will be a split and several will go off the front. It’s here where I realized Tom was not with me and here where the low registration numbers really began to show. Whereas two years ago this group would have been 35-50 skaters we were less than 20. There were no splits larger than one or two people and they kept being swallowed up.

What was really odd, and it must have taken me more than an hour to figure out, was that nobody could climb the hills. I pride myself in being able to skate slow up hill so as not to expend too much energy but these folks, from all over the country were almost standing still. What finally clued me in were the downhills. I needed to tuck down way below the person in front of me to maintain my position. What was the issue? My tiny 100 mm wheels! Everyone else was on 110’s and shooting downhill at breakneck speeds, I’m sure the 50 mph barrier has been broken on Silverhill; those suckers are fast. However, few people it seems have the strength to push those 110’s uphill. Against all my previous experience I had to pull out of the pack to causally skate uphill all the while passing the pace line as they struggled.

Somewhere in the first hour there came a familiar constant chatter from the pack and I knew we had picked up Bob Harwell, in fact everyone knew we had picked up Bob as he is skating’s number two ambassador of good will right after Eddy Matzger and barely edging out George Quinn. From then on Bob and I skated all but the last ten miles together. After the 38 mile break we had a nice group which withered down to sometimes one or two other skaters. However once the 52 milers started to show up on the road, you can tell them by their fresh legs, Bob kept up a steady diet of “trying-to-hang-on” at some point that became too rich for my blood, and thankfully most times Bob would drop off and I’d slowly reel him back in. At about mile 75 a Columbian skater caught us on a short steep incline that has bested me every year – read that as I “run” up the grass on the side of the road – he says, “ Keep your head up, come on we can work together and catch up.” Catch up to what I’m thinking. I believe I swore at him, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Earlier in the day I still had to deal with the dizziness thing and the lack of confidence I was felling because of it. As I mention the downhills were very fast and there are two in particular early on that are the stuff of nightmares. The first is a gentle downhill that gradually gets steeper over almost a two mile stretch. By the bottom you are really hauling ass and this year the pavement near the bottom has been roughed up a bit. I can tell you my head was having none of this after about a mile. Luckily for me my 100 mm wheels meant I could uncrouch a touch a fall back. BUT NO, coming right behind me was another train and soon I was being pushed downhill by any number of folks on faster, bigger wheels. So I waved them to my right and I moved left. Clear, simple instructions, yes? Well I guess not as the whole line moved left with me. So I signaled them to go left and moved right. You guessed it; again the hand was right there on my back and throughout this dance we are all accelerating. I revert to yelling instructions to the fellow behind me, practically giving him my medical history before I can escape the train and calm the sense of vertigo. Of course by this time we’re at the bottom of the hill and the train rushes half way up the next hill on its own momentum. It’s early however so I don’t realize they can’t climb so I chase after them only to overshoot almost the whole line.

The next scary big downhill is later in the skate than I remember and it sneaks up on me such that I don’t realize I’m on it until two thirds of the way down. Unremarkable but for the fact that this hill has a 90 left hand turn at the bottom and I’m just noticing that fact with total disbelieve almost as I enter the turn. Do I tuck to get a better turning radius? No. I shout “on your left” and “coming over” as I slide from the left hand lane into the center of the road. Fortunately, everyone else was either too scared to head down at full speed or sliding sideways with me so we all made it through. Why I have never encountered oncoming traffic at this turn I’ll never know.

I did fall once, on one uphill where we were moving so slowly that when I clicked skates with the fellow in front I was able to put a knee down on the grass and stand back up without losing a spot in the line. (Sorry to the gent who took a bigger tumble trying to avoid me, maybe my foot was still on the road. I don’t think he made it back with us.) There was one near spill when on a very flat section of road I simply turned my head and totally lost my balance. Though I managed to stay on my feet this was a frightening experience and then on Rosser Road, I was so fatigued that I tried to run up by leaning forward and had to run just to keep from falling on my face for the second time in two weeks.

As I mentioned Bob and I were a team and together pulled into the mild headwind for 20 of the last 50 miles. Bob had more gas and finished three minutes ahead of me all of which he made up in the last 10 miles so I really slowed down there at the end. The last of the humorous stories comes as I approach check point six. I’m coming up slow and turn down water, but I call out for oranges and a volunteer, bless his heart, runs out with two oranges. Not quartered, but full oranges. What am I going to do with whole oranges? I bet I was a bit rude as I asked for slices. I’m sorry if I offended. I was quickly obliged, most likely without me having to fully stop, and I was gingerly on my way. Gingerly is a skating stride that only those that have skated for close on six hours up on down endless hills will understand.

Those last few miles are were I became to really draw upon the optimism of the weekend. Focusing on being close and not on the few miles of foot jarring pavement I still had to skate, I looked for every landmark to convince myself that I was getting closer to finishing. The cops in Atlanta were great as always, stopping all traffic so I could j-skate through the middle of five-way intersections. Once I crossed the cobblestone plaza and gingerly stepped jumped the curb onto the side street leading to the park I got my first glimpse of downtown and a big boost of energy. I knew home was in site, though not before the car that while trying to park ran me into the curb. I squeaked by yelling my lungs. After that can you believe at the end of it all, the finish line was moved 100 yards further uphill, I felt my last bit of energy drain as I crossed the old line and believe I finished by the grace of the day’s only tailwind. I ended the day with a time just over 6 hours; 6:11:05 to be exact and was met by my support crew of one, Kathy with my six back of Guinness which I was able to dole out to those who made it such a memorable day of travelling.

Thanks to all those responsible for continuing such a unique event. Oh that optimism on the ride into Athens? Pete Starykowicz won the day in a three way sprint to the (moved) finish line. Way to go Pete.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Keep the helmet side up!

I can often be heard encouraging others at the starting line of various races with the above imperative. As last Thursday turned out I could stand to heed my own advice. Planning to get in my second long skate of the week prior to A2A, I sent out a call to anyone to see if they would be skating and if they’d like to meet up on one of our north side trails. As it happened, Cale was up for a long skate and offered to join in for the entire 30 miles. I choose the North Branch trail as it is far more interesting in terrain then two laps of the straight and narrow Old Elm trail. The downside to North Branch currently is as it winds through the forest preserves the recent huge storms have left the trail covered in leaves, twigs, at times caked mud and stones. Anyway, I wasn’t too concerned as I had skated the entire trail on Monday and if anything the bike traffic would start to crush the leaves and twigs into power making it easier to skate.

I can’t say that I was unhappy when right off Cale offered to pull and as the miles clicked over he never gave up the lead position. I might have been forewarned about the events to come as a mere 10 yards into our skate I hit a rock hard and had to work to plant both feet back on the ground. After that we skated the next 10 miles to Devon Ave without incident. We were clocking a faster pace then I had skated on Monday which fit into my training schedule leading into my cool down week. On our return trip north neither of us needed to stop for more water so we breezed past the cars and to finish the northern third of the trail. North to Dundee Road and back would be a total of 10 miles. The pace was brisk and I was feeling great. Admittedly my mind was on the roads in Atlanta and what the pace line size might be over the last 40 -50 miles of Georgian hills. I was not concentrating on skating through the leaf and twig strewn trail in Illinois on which I just happened to be skating. I’m then noticing that I’m laying face down in those Illinois leaves and twigs and trying to figure out if I’m dreaming or I’m a GI Joe action figure left on the ground by some careless youngster. I don’t know what I’m thinking. I have some recollection of being helped up by Cale and a biker and picking some debris off my face. (More on that in a minute.) Somehow I’m wiping my face with my bandana, but I have no idea how I got it out from my under my helmet.

The story as I heard it later from Cale is he hears me going down with a most descriptive “Oh Shit!!” Of course it takes him a few seconds to stop, what with all of the leaves, and as he’s returning he describes me as a sack of potatoes on the trail, no movement, no thought whatsoever for how I’m splayed out across the pavement. The biker comes around the corner, and as luck would have it we’re friends and he says later that I was still not moving for 20 -30 seconds after that. I do start to stir and all though this time Cale has fought his desire to pull off a leaf that is stuck to my face. I think that is what I like so most about Cale. When it’s my time and he’s around he’ll make sure I’m presentable.

Based on my earliest recollection of the events after my fall I may have lost about 5 minutes of memory as I only remember from the time when I recognize Lance, my biker friend. Once steady on my feet I’m ready to skate the last mile back to the car and get cleaned up. Remember I have no clue that I’m actually hurt. Cale is, understandably, a bit unnerved by this but I make it back in one piece. When you consider that I’ve been standing for a few minutes in skates without wobbling it’s probably not that surprising. What doesn’t make it back in one piece is my helmet. Wow!! It’s cracked in two places and you can see in the picture a big chuck broke out of the side. It was really a shame to toss it after taking the photo, but it did its job and I’m very grateful.

It did take a trip to the hospital to prove that I was OK, yet I still feel slighted by not having the doc sign an affidavit stating that in his words he pronounced me “normal.” It may be some time before I’m heard to tell others to “Keep the helmet side up.” I may just concentrate on myself for awhile. Thanks to Cale and to everyone for the well wishes and for Kathy for not even mentioning me giving up skating.