Thursday, November 8, 2012

Iceman Cometh 2012

Ah.......the Iceman. Part race, part destination, part fun, part pain, but always in one way shape or form worth the trip. The race has exploded over the last several years and really shows no signs of slowing. When I first began racing this event, the limit was capped at 2000 riders and often you could take a few months once registration opened to mess around with whether or not you were going to ride. Now.............5000 riders flock from all over the Midwest, Canada, and yes even the world to race this crazy little race through the woods of Northern Lower Michigan. Servers crash and lightning streaks across the sky (not really;) when enrollment opens every year and 10,000 people vying for an open spot wonder for days whether or not there frantic mouse clicks have put them on the starting line for a race that will occur 6 months later. Pure Michigan indeed!

Anyway, in recent events over the last several years, the races have become well, a bit different. Originally when I started doing this race, it was a test to see whether or not I could actually hang with some of the top riders from around the mid west. Back in the day, I was happy to trudge through to the finish line managing a top 20% overall finish and occasionally breaking the top five in my age class. Now, with the woods teeming with 5,000 rabid dogs in their PJ's slavering through the woods, I routinely struggle to crack the top 30%. Not as you might wonder due to my decreasing fitness and slow, inexorable march towards baldness and middle age, but really it's due to the monster amount of people linked up like a giant centipede connected almost continuously from Kalkaska straight through to Traverse City. Race line....yeah right, you make your own line!

In the week leading up to the race, there are so many distractions, I barely manage to look at my bike. Normally I'm tweaking, greasing, lubing, torquing my way towards the weekend. Thankfully I cleaned it up from the previous ride, because other than throwing it onto the back of the minivan, she never received more than a sideways glance. But with all the things going on as of late, I was glad to get in a couple of rides in the basement in the week leading up to the race. As always, even that would not have been possible without the support of my lovely wife. Thanks again for supporting the addiction babe.

We had a great ride up on Friday before the race. The girls were good in the van, we hit the expo in Traverse City and they absolutely loved running around the Grand Traverse Resort. We checked out a few booths (not as thorough as I'd like), but much like the lack of time for biking etc. we're always on the lookout for the next upcoming nap time! Harper started to fuss a bit so we grabbed some insanely over priced ham sandwiches and Bug Juice from the "deli" and made room for Carys's picnic at a table in the hallway! Unfortunately, we pushed our little trooper a bit too far that day. Harper could not be calmed. She was hungry, but wouldn't eat, she wanted to walk, but also wanted to be held, and she was thirsty, but didn't want milk from that particular cup.....and yup then the meltdown. Christa tucked her unceremoniously into the stroller and headed for the van while Carys and I finished our picnic in a rush. Upon review, Christa said that once Harper got the milk in her own cup, life was good and she settled for the short, hour long ride (and nap) to Boyne.

It was snowing on that drive and of course my bike was being laced with crud from the road. I groaned as later after settling in and putting the girls to bed, I would have to clean it up......again. Alas time always the challenge, she got no more than a brief chain cleaning with a paper towel! I traded a clean bike for a steak dinner and good night's sleep

Fast forward to the morning of the race. We had a good morning. A little hustled, but nothing I didn't over plan for! ;) We arrived in time for a good warm up and a 31F start temp...

31F, overcast skies, and yup.....snowing! Perfect. The weather for The Iceman is anything but predictable. It could be sunny and 60F, it could be snow covered and 20F. This year was right in the wheelhouse for decent race conditions. Lots of sand in this area of Michigan so the cold weather along with the moisture helps to firm up the soil.

Iceman race starts are, I have to imagine, unlike nearly anything else. 5000 people, 1 start line, and one race line! Wow! The start is staggered, so that helps. Waves start about every 2.5 minutes or so. It's a frenzy to say the least.

Pre-race jitters now. Light headed feeling, hands tingling, guts turning. I'm in the back of the minivan, pulling on my PJ's getting ready to warm up. I hop out and kiss the girls,and Carys tells me "hurry up daddy". Ha! So off I go with those ample words of encouragement ensuring that I will give it all I've got!

I roll to the start line and wow, the people. My wave has 99 riders. I'm 6 from the back. I'm warmed up, but will need it to get around the crowd for certain. The wave rolls to the starting gate and the announcer is babbling on about how he loves the snow. Seeing that he's dressed in North face parka and snowmobile boots, no wonder he "loves the snow"! Christa stops along the fence for pre-race kiss. This helps settle my nerves and bring me back down to earth. I realize that this is still just a race and helps me come down from the ceiling as to my poor start position. I bet the guy in the front of the pack didn't get a good luck kiss before the start of his race.....Ha! sucker.

Anyway, my vision narrows, the seconds slow and the bell rings and we're off. The Iceman starts are notoriously hard fought. The tip of the spear establishes and the geese replace the front end repeatedly to keep the pace nice and high. When you're in the front, this is helpful though a bit painful. When you're in the back, you're just trying not to let the elastic snap. I roll near the outside of the V about 93 riders back and drop the hammer. It sounds easy on paper to drop the hammer when you have an engine with 300hP on unlimited reserve. When you do this with a body only capable of sustaining about 1 HP for indeterminate amount of time, you wonder whether or not you will crack. Not to mention you have to do it with 30.5 miles left to go in a 30.6 mile race! Alas, I do it anyway.

I begin to knock of riders in groups of 3, hovering inches from their handlebars peloton style trying to get a bit of draft as I crash towards the front. we approach the first 90 degree turn and the pack begins to slow, this is the elastic snapping part that makes riding in the back so difficult. As the group slows, the riders near the front corner at speed and accelerate out of the turn, in the back you slow as not to crash, but then have to go full gas to keep touch with the draft......I drop the hammer and hop the curb knocking out 25 positions inside 5 seconds. I'm sitting about 30th now with a mile (or less) to go to the woods. Riders are beginning to crack. The top 6-7 guys are trading the headwind and everyone else is just hanging on for dear life. I'm frantic now, because I'm pinned on the red line. Heart rate unknown, but it hurts.....a lot. I draft for several seconds, the riders crack and I'm forced to close the gap. Couple riders, couple seconds, dropped, then pass and close the gap again. We hit the gravel and I'm 8th. There's a strong group of 5 left. 6 and 7 and bouncing on the pedals trying not to crack. I'm better than them, but not by much. As we hit the dirt adjacent to the middle school (old starting area) 6 and 7 begin to lose the gap. I've recovered for about 30 seconds in their slip stream and am able to lift up to the 6th position easily. We cross pavement, drop into the ditch and the top 3 attack!........Really???

Damn it.......(Hurry up Daddy).....Damn it. Yup I went with them. I'm scrambling to hang onto the 4th place wheel, but know if I drop it, I'm gone....the race as they say is over. I have his slipstream now. I'm not the lazy boy, smoking a cigarette recovering, but the heart rate is south of 180bpm now and feeling in my hands and normal vision are returning. Good, and I'm hurrying Carys!

I'm feeling better but I notice 2 and 3 and starting to look not so good. When you've spent enough time on the bike, this is easy to spot by the way. It's not always as evident as someone just sitting up and quitting. Oftentimes is starts with a bad line here, or a bump that catches them by surprise there. Riders that have been there (me included every time I race) understand when it happens to them and learn when to recognize the signs. If you don't, that's when gaps form and you could be in trouble. Number 1 is tamping out one hell of a pace now. He's not looking for any help. If I don't get behind him, I may never see him again.

I pin it (again) after only 2 miles into the race I'm wondering how in the heck I can keep this up. I pull alongside the 2nd place rider and he doesn't even look over, he sits up and rolls away quickly. I drop into the groove and realize, there's not much to hide behind. #1 is about 5-7 140 lbs (best guess) and he's running about 8% body fat by the looks of him......uh oh. I manage to hang on until about mile 4 before the rollers start. Bottom line, 140lbs lean machine vs 190 lb beer swilling weekend warrior. Guess what happened next?

I lost him but would continue to push near my limits. I began to get out of the red zone and realize that our efforts have brought us within the next wave after only 4 miles of riding. I roll around man after man and gradually settle into a heart rate south of Canada and begin to feel the groove.

I hate the two track. It's all about sustained effort, little skill, and just keeping yourself just shy of passing out if you want to stay ahead of the pack. But there's a lot of two track at the Iceman and if you wanna go fast, you gotta go fast. The miles continue to tick off and we hit the single track. I'm hoping to swoop through and pull back some time. But alas there's a traffic jam. I actually stopped several times and waited for others to meander through the woods. One hapless cat decided to run through the woods cx (cyclocross) style with his bike slung over his shoulder. After about 10 riders, he decided 25 more weren't going to get him much. He dropped off the berm and set his bike in front of mine......nice! Unfortunately for him the conditions were worsening, he slid out and off to the side. I was "forced" to run over his back wheel and continue on with a smile. Hope they weren't too expensive Captain America. The 10 or so riders that he vaulted in front of him needless to say weren't giving him his spot back.

After that section of single track (I think maybe the last major one until the finish) it was pretty uneventful. You know, the usual stuff: climbing "near vertical" dirt walls of mud strewn with weary cyclists and using said mud mixed with sand as a drive train lubricant! Talking or rather gasping out a few pleasantries to fellow suffering cyclists. All in a good day of racing in Northern Michigan!

Flash to the finish. I has been battling back and forth for some time with a svelte 5'6" 150 lb racer for most of the last 10 miles. He'd been dropping me on the climbs and I'd been blasting down hill around riders and off the beaten path like an out of control juggernaut.....recall 6'1" 190 lbs. Anyway, he dropped me on the last climb and I couldn't bring him back. We ducked into the familiar mud infested single track before the corral style finish through the snow fences. At this point the riding slowed (again) and a guy two men back from me had had enough. He bellowed out "for F's sake it's a mountain bike race!" He elbowed past the rider behind me causing him to tap down. Then he tried his hand with big bear.....recall 6'1" 190 lbs. He put his wheel in where it wasn't wanted and oddly enough, I didn't move? He was hollering to beat the band that he needed to pass. The only response I gave, "yup, you and the rest of the conga line."

At the exit of the muddy single track. Mr. Road Rage came around with a vengeance which woke me from my slumbering slog through the mud towards the snow fences. The road widened and I grabbed his wheel. I was gearing up for a hard fought sprint to the finish, but he wasn't as fast as I'd thought. With all that blustering I assumed Ryder Hesjedal had returned to the Iceman for a cameo. I grabbed the outside line off the last corner and wheelied past him at the finish line. I saved the Contador pistols for another day.....I finished in 2hrs:12 min. I hope my finish time will improve my placing at the start of next year's race! Last year was 2hr:22min.

I finished just behind another Team Sand Bag racer. Brad Dunkin had just finished up and was looking for the beer tent! I found the girls who gave me an "it's about time" look

and the race was done. Another one in the books. Christa had a couple of beer tickets (bless her heart) ready for the Bell's Beer Tent so we grabbed a couple of those (Two Hearted and Amber) to chug before exiting the campground. The girls got a couple of "Racer's only" cookies and later we found the TSB campsite, had a PBR, was afforded some shelter for a much needed change of clothes, swapped a few stories with friends, and made the return commute to the corn fields....corn fields you ask....well, that is another story. With nap time fast approaching (isn't it always!) and the girls' faces getting long, it was time to hit the road.

I'll be back next year. It'll all start at 9:00am in the middle of March, frantically clicking the submit button hoping to ink in another spot for this legendary race. Can't wait

Ruby 50.....miles. Ugh

A few months ago I started riding the Mountain bike a bit more. Why, you ask? My lovely wife decided that for my 30 something birthday (yup, can't recall how old I am anymore), I should pursue one of the most lusted after and previously unattainable prizes I can recall ever setting sights on. Yup, the 29er. I recall the conversation vividly, which is odd because I've been accused by some of having a memory that's anything but vivid. It was late and Christa was pushing me for birthday ideas.....

Christa, "Honey, I should get you an Ipad"
Me, "Now, what in the world am I gonna do with an Ipad?"
C, "You could play play solitaire on it. Or even angry birds"
Me, " I do like angry birds, but $600.00 dollars seems like a lot to play a card game and fling birds at walls. What else could I use it for"
C. "Lots of stuff, you just mess around with it, I don't know."
Me, " I'd rather not spend the money. Maybe we can save up a few birthdays and Christmas's for something I'd actually use. Just seems weird to buy something for the internets, when when we already have laptops, Play Stations, Two "smart phones", and cable that all do the same thing."
C. "You're so hard to shop for you know that?
Me, "Sorry, I know."

Fast forward a few nights:

C, "How about a bike?"
Me, "Huh?"
Now she has my attention!
C, "You've always wanted a new 29" bike, you should get one."
Me, "Can't hardly believe I'm saying this, but that is really not something you want me to do."
C, "Why, you deserve it."
Me, (I know - inside voice), Thanks honey, but you know I'll want to spend as much on a bike as we normally spend on cars, that's just ridiculous."
C, "You still deserve it."
Me, "Probably shouldn't honey. Thanks, but we'll just see what we see."

Fast forward a few weeks

Me, "So, is the offer still open to get that bike."

Even though it's dark I sensed a smile and a possible eye roll, but no one will really ever no - save one!

C, "Yes, you can get your bike."
Me (In the illustrious words of Bill Cosby upon finding out there were eggs in chocolate cake), "Oh goodie!"

So I bought one, and that's why I started riding the MTB again.

Back to the Ruby 50. So, this is ague-ably the most difficult course in Michigan. Not for the crazy downhills, the sand, the rocks, or the roots. But really the squeezes between the trees, the off camber turns, the ill placed out-houses, and the momentum robbing corners that send you screeching though the gears and grabbing for more (even though you were out three tries ago). It's short, It crosses rivers (really, does the DNR even allow that anywhere else in the really real world), it goes straight up and straight down. You have to dodge 5 years old kids who are catching frogs on the trail, the owner on his decrepit old "land-scaping" implements, and the occasional drunkard who still believes that the american flag is the only acceptable pattern with which to cloth himself (you can often spot him by his vacant stare and his too late Whooooooooooooooooooo as you ride by kicking up mud and/raw sewage).

So when I heard that there was going to be a race there again this year, I thought yup, I'm in. After a few more Wednesdays kicking around the campground (which by the way is an odd combination of primitive camping turned wanna be modern.....but not quite) and I find out from Todd Powers that he's convinced the Michigan endurance series to hold a 50 mile race there. I looked at Todd with a vacant stare containing wonder, awe, and confusion and simply stated, "say again."

Now keep in mind, Mr. Powers is one of the most optimistic, driven entrepreneur-type people I've met. I don't get out much, but he's got endless energy, and a plethora of never say die attitude in him that we could all use a little more of. Anyway, he brought the race race to Ruby Campground, and thus set the stage for a epic race in the middle of nowhere Michigan.

Background complete (or beat to death), we jump to the weekend of the race. Christa has a rendezvous with Mom at the Brothers of the Sun tour on Saturday before the race. Uncle Hoon and Brooke decided to drop by this weekend as well, so not exactly the pre-race calm I was aiming for. But then, in the life of an amateur racer, when is there really ever a few days of pre-race calm? Anyway, We had a good morning with the girls, Christa left for the concert, and David and Brooke and I took the girls on a bike ride down to the park in Marysville. Had a great day, the girls were awesome, and went to bed for dad without a hitch. Christa finally got home around 1:30am.....but that is another story.

The morning of the race came early. I departed for the race venue (camp ground) at about 7:15am. The start was to be prompt at 9:00am. Uncle Hoon can attest, that I am really one of the most annoying people in over compensating for Murphy's law, so I arrive in plenty of time to realize that I'm actually gonna ride 50 miles at Ruby campground. Normally 12.5 - 15 miles is considered a full day there. So you can imagine how 50 is sounding/sinking in the morning before the ride.

Now, it's not all bad. A few days before the race Todd and the Michigan Endurance Series organizer decide that 50 miles at Ruby might just have the potential of actually getting some people hurt.......huh, really? That being said, the decision was made that we should take half of the race to the surrounding country gravel roads. Great, trade one of the most difficult loops in Michigan for a bunch of hill billies on 4-wheelers dressed in civil war rebel garb (if they're dressed at all). Awesome! But I digress.

Finally, the start of the race: We line up. All 40 of us. There's not a lot of crazy people out there who would show up for an event like this. But the fact that this is one of the races on the Michigan endurance series means there are points up for grab. I looked to my Team Sandbag (TSB) team mates (we're the majority team here, about 5 strong) and realize that we're likely out classed. There are various individuals including clean shaven roadies, hard core tattoo-ed endurance series mainstays, and even a coupled of ZZtop wanna be's also legendary on the endurance series circuit. It suffices to say, that these people are a different breed of racers.

After dodging a few 60's vintage RV's leaving the campground, we start the race, nearly on time. The "roll out" starts on the aforementioned gravel roads and turns into a 5 mile 24 MPH average sprint for the woods, on mountain bikes, in the gravel, for 5 miles. At one point, I looked in front of me (tucked in roadie style hoping for a little draft) and realized the wheel which I was clinging was the ZZ Top wanna be on a single speed. What!!!!! Really!!!! One gear for this race!! Oh come on! So I managed to survive to the woods only slightly off the pace. 5 animals had streaked away (including one TSB guy, Alex Gonzalez) and I hung onto the next group which included Todd Powers (recall, TSB Captain and the one responsible for pulling this all together), and two team guys from the Mt. Pleasant area. I entered the woods 7th and cooked before the race has really even started....ugh.

Todd is talking the whole time. He never stops talking. We need to stick to the plan. Stay together. We know the course, pick the best lines, pick the best pedal strokes, we're one with this trail. Remember, this is our home course! Right, (inside voice again) then why are these guys smoking us? But we stuck together and stuck with the plan, and he was right. We actually recovered? Maybe. Just a little. And began to reel in the the evil doers. We dropped the Mt. Pleasant guys and focused on catching the top five.....then the road hit again...and watched as they crept ever so slowly away.

Todd to me, "stick to the plan. 30 second pulls on the road. We can do 20-21 together, they're split apart attacking each other like a pack of wild dogs up there. Stick together, stick to the plan, your turn"


My turn hurts me every 30 seconds, but we maintain the pace and near the end of the road section, Todd is stoked and I'm crying for mercy. We hit the trails again and oddly enough recover while reeling in the bad guys again......crazy. Anyway, we draw in ZZ top on the single speed and drop his butt like the cigarette smoking 80's rocker that he is! ;)

Then the road again.....ouch

This time Todd isn't talking. I'm wondering where the banter is. This banter that has carried me through the first 20 miles of this 50 mile massacre. I pull to the front and I notice he's actually drooling. Oh man.

Me, "Dude, you OK?"
Todd, "yeah why?"
Me, (Inside voice again, oh, I don't know maybe cause you're drooling!)

We trade pulls. Todd's are getting shorter, but that's OK, because he helped me when I was smoked. We are coming to the woods and I wave him around. This is his baby, he built this thing and I don't want to hold him up. He takes the lead and we realize we've reeled in the 4th place rider. Actually, he's the clean shaven roadie lookin' guy who probably should've chosen something other than the ultimate weight weenie machine. He's blown a spoke and is hollering for another bike. Didn't realize this was Le Tour or who the hell he was talking to, but I know he wasn't getting my ride. I think I may have flung some sewage soaked earth his way as I blew past him on the trail, but who could tell?

Back to the woods. I'm pushing Todd now, but appreciating the rest.

Me, "Are we still going fast, I can't tell."
Todd, "You need to go around, I'm all in. I'm a sprinter and this is where I check out."
Me, "I'm good it actually feels better for once."
Todd, "That means you're not going hard enough....get around me>"
Me, damn (inside voice), "OK."

I go around and begin to swoop around the course again. I hit the road for the 4th time and I'm utterly alone. Oh great. I don't see anyone in front of me and no one is behind me. I have no speedometer to realize the pace I need to push so I go to what I know best.....Hoon, don't you laugh! I crank it up until my hands shake and then step it down a gear. I hold that for 5 miles, then hit the woods. To my surprise a mile later, I see a jersey. Now at this point I've been passing a lapped rider or two., Easy to tell the difference though. This guy isn't coming back in a hurry. That's 3rd place up there! Podium baby. 3rd overall. I have a TSB guy and two other cats in front of me. The two other guys: One's a guy from the west side who's multi lingual but speaks some type of Danish language (recall, I'm not well traveled). He's holding 3rd. The other guy is 140 lb rocket running a skin suit on a rigid factory ride sponsored by Soul Cycles (chances are if you haven't heard of them, they're really expensive).

Anyway, I catch the 3rd place guy and pass him as he taps down on a crazy switchback appropriately named the Wall.....ouch. I'm officially on the podium. Shortly after that disaster strikes for My TSB partner (A.Gon) as he blows his tire off the rim in an uncanny location. His day is done. I'm in 2nd place with 1.25 laps to go.

Then comes the road. The danish rider is within sight as I exit the woods. I know the next 5 miles will be the race for me. I'm now actually nervous because (in the illustrious words of Rocky Balboa), I don't wanna lose what I got! I hit the top of the campground road and look, but don't grab for, the big ring. You would've thought the shift lever was covered in a thousand poisonous thorns. I knew I needed to jam it, but couldn't convince my thumb to do the deed. This lasted for what seems like an eternity. I turned the pedals over several times, looked over my shoulder to see the danish champion (oh, come now, really...couldn't help myself there!) climb onto the road a mere 500 yards back. I grabbed the Big Ring one more time and dialed er up to shaky hands and backed er down a gear..........

Which wasn't enough.

He was closing. I had lost almost half of my lead in the first mile and a half. I turned the corner and dropped it down to the hand shaking gear. Oh man, if I can just make the woods, I'm in for second place. I focus on everything I've ever learned on the road. Make circles. Use every muscle in your lower body starting with your core to turn it over. Relax your shoulders, lift your head, and crouch to reduce the drag, and pin it. And please, please don't cramp.

I make the next turn, fearful to look back but unable not to. I realize I've opened the gap almost to my original lead leaving the woods! No way. 1.5 miles left to go to the woods. It felt like a hundred. I pinned it for all I was worth, didn't cramp, and made it to the woods, near out of sight of the Danish rider. The last 5 miles should've been uneventful. I pedaled and focused. I kept smooth even though I knew I was a gear lower than my original laps. I eventually dropped the challenger from sight and began the roll into the finish......when something odd happened.

I couldn't recall whether this was my last lap or not. Whether due to incompetence or age combined with drink (thank you Bones), I had forgotten where I was in the race. I continued to pedal, fearing the possibility of another lap and unable to piece together what would happen when I crossed the line. I rolled up the last hill and dropped down into the gravel pit where the fans and finishers were (and to my delight C and girls stood as well) and gently and gingerly turned toward the exit corral which signified the finish of the race. I waited, uncertainly for the officials to send me back out or to proclaim my hard fought second place. I was supremely thankful to hear the announcer announce me as the second place over all finisher in what was truly the toughest race yet in which I have ever competed.

It ended with no raucous fanfare or ticker tape shower of confetti and spray of Red Bull, but rather it ended in the arms of my three favorite people in the world. Carys was trying to jump into my arms, unaware of my personal accomplishment and only aware that daddy was done riding his bike.

 Harper looked at me as she usually does: Furrowed brow, slow crinkling smirk, and then full blown smile that could melt the earth.

And Christa, who had been up all night enjoying a rare moment of solace had dragged herself and the girls out to another mountain bike race in an obscure corner of Michigan to be there for me at the finish. Thanks baby. Love you for all that you do.