ETT 08: Race Day

With no milk for my ritual cereal, I ate yet another apple in the morning.  Left the room by 5AM for the drive downtown.  Approaching from the east on Broadway, I spied the first signs of cyclists parking on side roads and figured I’d better grab a freebie spot (Convention Center parking was $7).

A few ride decisions to make.  Fortunately the temperature was already 55 and headed for high 70s, so shorts and jersey was all that was needed.   I decided to wear arm warmers for the wait at the Start, because they’re so light and stowable.

I was struggling with a decision to wear my Camelbak or not, and decided to leave it.  The 109 mile course reportedly had 22 aid stations – can you believe that?   For fuel, I brought a few granola bars plus a water bottle filled with 12 scoops of Perpetuem endurance powder mixed with water to a pancake-like consistency.  This concoction is designed to be sufficient for 6 hours of endurance exercise at my weight.

Tugging on my shoes, I discovered that one of the ski-boot-like bindings was missing.  Dangit!  Scoured the backseat of the SUV in the dark and finally found it.  The binding used a very short #6 Phillips screw to fasten to the shoe, fortunately a captive one.  Unfortunately, I had no screwdriver, only Allen wrenches.

I locked the car and rode ½ mile to the start area, and found the shoe didn’t ride too badly missing that binding.  Anyway, I figured that a support station would have a screwdriver, but I learned that they weren’t set up yet.  More amazingly, here I was at about 5:30AM and the entire Gold section was already closed and 1/4 of the Silver section was already filled!  Thousands of riders and their bikes standing in the darkness.

I rode to the back of the Silver section, figuring, well, the shoe is just going to have to behave, and waited about 10 minutes, looking around for Jules.  I called her and left a message.  I then noticed maybe a quarter of the riders wearing hydration systems, and started second guessing my decision to leave mine.  I finally turned around and left the Start area, futilely checking again for the repair tent and/or Jules.

I rode the ½ mile back to my car in the darkness, weaving in and out of the light traffic on Congress.  Grabbed my water-filled Camelbak out of the SUV, then asked a departing cyclist for a screwdriver.  His Allen wrench set had a Phillips head built-in, and we quickly got the shoe put back together.  Yes!

Back at the Start area, the Silver section was now about 1/3 filled and I took a spot in the back.  Started shivering in the cold, despite my arm warmers.  Fortunately there was a very cute girl next to me with no companions – no I’m not making this up.  We talked for about 20 minutes and I learned she was a combined economics-history major at UA and a very accomplished mountain bike racer.  She said she was aiming for a Platinum finish in this ETT, but she didn’t seem to understand the Start area sections.  Finally a girlfriend of hers pulled her out of the Silver section (away from us common folk) and hoisted her bike up over the barricade into the middle of the Gold section.  I guess if you’re that cute, you can get away with things.

Jules finally found me about 6:30AM, although I have no idea how she muscled her way up through everyone behind me.  It was good to see her and we exchanged some last minute ride tips.  Through the pre-Start announcements, we learned that over 8,600 riders had registered this year, and the starting area looked like it!

This year’s El Tour was dedicated to Robbie Ventura.  Robbie is a two-time El Tour champion, founder of an athletic coaching franchise, and currently a commentator on the Versus channel for the Tour de France.  Interestingly, Jules and Robbie’s paths crossed somewhere in Jules’ training career although I’m not exactly sure where.  Robbie got on the mike several times before the gun, urging riders to be safe, and I learned that he was actually standing in the Platinum section and going to ride!

Just like this spring’s ETP, the Star Spangled Banner blew me away.  It was a fabulous recording of a barbershop quartet-like group, close mike’d, with magnificent reverb.  I actually wrote to Perimeter after the ETP to get the artists’ name but they never replied.  Guess I gotta try again.

The gun sounded, and wow, it was hurry up and wait.  The Platinum/Gold section started emptying out beside us, and finally the gates were opened for us peons.  I timed the delay at about 8 minutes from the gun to where we actually crossed the start line.

We proceeded super slowly through the initial twists and turns, slowing to another full stop down Granada.  Then a gradual pickup in speed heading south, but still with loads of bicycle traffic.  Some streets were thinner than others, and I was often caught in arterial clogs of riders, just gliding along watching my spacing.

Jules and I rode together for a couple miles.  Past one short stretch we were both amazed to see at least 50 riders on the sidelines repairing flats.   Either there was a big patch of glass, or this was just statistics – a bunch of infant blowouts in the early miles.  Jules and I eventually lost each other in the massive pack.  It was the last I’d see her on the course.

We barely got up to speed before hitting the Santa Cruz river crossing at the 7.5 mile mark.  The inclusion of river crossings in the ETT is a tradition, and they must be walked.  The crossing is about 0.25 mile, and the sea of riders crossing the channel looked immediately to me like wildebeests crossing a river in Africa.   I heard from other riders that the pro racers up front actually ride through the hard-pack and sand, but there is no chance for us to do that with so many riders backed up here.  The crossing took about 5 minutes.

The pace started picking up after the river as we headed east, eventually along the frontage road heading southeast beside I-10.  A 5 mph breeze came directly at us from the east, and we all troubled our way through it, with everyone seeking out drafting opportunities wherever they could get them.

Two more long legs east, along Irvington  and Escalante Rds., which included some modest climbing.  As we turned north I expected the headwinds to get better.  Of course, they now felt like they were coming from the north, so the labor continued.   Once we hit Freeman Rd., there was a beautiful couple miles sloping downhill, giving a much needed rest.   Somewhere in there we passed a huge airplane graveyard on our right, possibly part of Davis-Monthan AFB grounds.   Somewhere out here I got stopped by police for crossing traffic.  Only about 30 seconds or so.

The far eastern stretches of the course brought some hill climbing, although nothing overly long or steep.  Jules calls this “Tucson flat” because it seems that everything is either climbing or descending here.   At the 46 mile mark we abruptly stopped to dismount for the second river crossing at Sabino Canyon, the longer of the two at 0.33 mile.  The Sabino Canyon area itself is quite pretty, secluded with lots of trees.  Again I found it interesting to witness our lemming line snaking its way through the paths, about 8 or 10 cyclists wide.  I finally refilled one water bottle here, since I was off the bike anyway.  Aid workers seemed really conscious about providing fast roadside fill-ups.  Nice.  This entire crossing took about 7-8 minutes.

We finally started heading west, along the broadly rolling hills of Sunrise Dr., Skyline, and Ina Rds.  I figured, wow, the winds are finally going to be pushing us from the east.  Not!  I felt little help, and mostly I continued to feel only my own self-wind.  As I pedaled I continued to latch on to various lines, trying to find a good rhythm.  Sometimes I’d stay 5 miles, sometimes only 0.5 mile, never quite finding the right group.

Got stopped again somewhere in here for traffic crossing, this time for about 4 or 5 minutes, which seemed like forever.  The cop finally calls out, “OK, get ready to go!,”  and about 10 cyclists yell out, “We’ve been ready!”

Turning north again, we labored up into the Rancho Vistoso area, around the 70 mile mark.  Having ridden this area twice (once with Jules on our 9/14 ride, and once on the Silverbell Century), I knew to expect a couple long gradual climbs before getting any relief.   Fortunately the area is really pretty.  I was still feeling fairly strong and motored up these hills well.

We turned again west onto Moore Rd., and then eventually onto Tangerine Rd.  These two stretches, especially the latter, comprise a fabulous 10 mile downhill.  I linked up with 2 other riders and took the entire 10 miles over 30mph, thrilled to gain back a little time lost in bike traffic and car traffic.

On Moore Rd., I passed an ambulance scene with a very nasty looking rider prone and probably unconscious, with blood streaming everywhere from his head.   Sure hope he was all right.  A little while later on Tangerine, I passed another ambulance scene but didn’t directly see anyone injured.

All good things come to an end, and Tangerine Rd. finally ran out as we passed under I-10 again and turned southeast onto the frontage road.  Of course, the breezes were directly in our faces again, but fortunately were still fairly calm.

I noticed my water bottle empty but knew I had some left in my Camelbak.   Passing yet another aid station, I took a swig on the mouthpiece and it abruptly went dry.  Dang.  The route took a couple of jogs, west onto Avra Valley Rd., then south on Airline, and east on Lambert.  Somewhere in here, both my legs locked up in unridable cramps.  I’d had hamstring cramps before but never quad cramps – this did not feel good.  I called out, “Slowing!” stopped and dismounted, and for about 20 seconds rubbed and stretched.  Tried clicking in again and cramped in response.  Another 10 seconds of rubbing, and I was finally back rolling again, gingerly.

Lambert then does some heartache climbing, and all the while I scanned the horizons for another water station, with mouth growing dry.   I slowly passed one girl laboring up the hill, smiled and nodded at her, and she blurted out, “I’m just dying here!”  Hmm, I felt the same way.

We finally turned onto Silverbell Rd., which I knew was the last long stretch of the ride, and finally got my water bottle filled at an aid station.  I drank almost half of it in one long swig, and immediately started stomach cramps on top of everything – great.

Not knowing our mileage so far, I asked an adjacent older gentleman I had been riding with, who proclaimed it mile 96.5.  That immediately sounded wrong to me, I felt we had much more than 12 miles to go.

Silverbell Rd. seemed to go on forever, and sure enough, I learned later that it is a 20 mile gradual rise back into the downtown area.  I refilled my water bottle one more time on this stretch, finally got some hydration back, and the cramping eased off.  Still, I had nothing left in the tank, and labored along around 15-16 mph.  Every once in a while, a pack would pass me, and I’d crank it up and draft onto the end of it.  But I couldn’t stay with anyone for longer than about 0.5 mile before languishing.

My mantra was to just keep rolling – you’ll feel fine after you stop.  Lower back was hurting and knees were twinging, other than that I didn’t feel too bad except for an overall low energy level.

Asked another rider for the mile mark and was told 102, which I believed this time.  Seven miles to go.  Too long to pick up the pace, just keep rolling.  I found myself actually groaning as I pedaled.  Checked my watch and realized that I was already just past the 6 hour mark – the line for gold.  Where was that left turn into town?

I finally saw riders ducking left up ahead and wondered how far that stretch would be.  Turning onto Congress, I picked it up to about 18mph but didn’t have much more to give.  Several groups of 8-10 riders swooped past me pushing toward the finish.  I thought about a push and that’s as far as I took it – a thought – I was too beat up.

Right onto Granada and under the banner.  I actually looked for a clock but didn’t see one.  It was sort of cool that an announcer kept up a steady rhythm as riders crossed, and he called out our names as we did so.  I guess he had an immediate read on our RFID tags.

I dismounted and hobbled onto the expo grounds, my poor petulant legs deciding to cramp unpredictably as I walked.  Thousands of riders were already in, quite the scene, with music blaring and people milling everywhere.

Waited for Jules for a while at the Finish, but then decided to take my bike back to the car and change into sneakers.  I was surprised that it felt fine to ride the ½ mile back there.  Still, I walked stiff-legged down the sidewalk back to the Finish, still cramping.

When I got there, I discovered that I’d left my wallet in the car, and therefore couldn’t buy anything to eat or drink.  Fortunately, free water and nibbles were available, so I gobbled down a few bananas and felt better right away cramp-wise.  Sky found me and we stood and talked a long time watching all the riders come in.

In time, we left and milled around the vendor tents, and I eventually picked up my medallion.  I told the lady there, “I came in S!” (for silver).  She laughed, and I told her, “That means Sorta Slow.”

Eventually we checked our times on the big board.  My time was 6:20:27, for an average of 17.2 mph.  Hey, semi- near gold, when you figure the start delay plus the traffic stops.  One of my pre-race goals was to break 7 hours, and so I didn’t have much problem with that.  I was listed unofficially as coming in 1,487th place.   My other pre-race goal had been to come in above the 50th percentile, so I was happy with that too, since I was already guessing there had to be way more than 2,974 riders on the 109 mile route.

As Sky and I were talking, I finally spotted Jules walking away from the Finish area.  I grabbed her shoulders and congratulated her on the ride, but found her upset.  Apparently, she’d gotten caught by a large number of traffic stops which slowed her down.  Additionally, she’d had a mishap dropping her arm warmers on the course, and had to turn back to find them, then wait for a clearing in the riders before picking them up, which also cost her time.

Jules and I walked back to her car and stowed her bike and gear, and I picked up my wallet at my car, too.  We then hiked back to the Finish area, found Randy, and all sat for a beer in the beer garden.  Jules quickly cooled down and we really enjoyed the atmosphere.  A little more milling around, then we picked up Jules’ medallion and ended up watching as hundreds and hundreds of riders continued to pour across the finish line.

One of my favorite things was to watch the expressions on riders’ faces as they finished.  Some triumphant.  Some elated that it was over.  Some almost in tears.  Some stoical.  And some just in pain.

Post Race:

A quick breakdown of the unofficial posted race results:

Route Finishers Percentage
109 mile 3817 56.0%
80 mile 477 7.0%
67 mile 1207 17.7%
33 mile 1320 19.4%

Total number of finishers was 6,821.  This surprised me because it was announced before the race that 8,600 had registered.  So did 1,700+ riders not ride or not finish?  At first, this sounds like a lot of no-shows or DNFs, but maybe not.

The 109-mile race winners came in around 4:20, with the winners a couple guys from Hermosillo.   Robbie Ventura came in only a few seconds behind them in 12th pace.   My time, again, was 6:20:27.  Here is a breakdown of that:

Finishers My Place Percentile
All finishers 3817 1487 0.390
All road bike finishers 3719 1466 0.394
All road bike finishers, age 50+ 1219 351 0.288
All road bike finishers, age 50-59 917 289 0.315
All road bike finishers, age 50-54 533 193 0.362
All road bike finishers, age 50 117 56 0.479
All men road bike finishers 2942 1318 0.448
All men road bike finishers, age 50+ 1054 336 0.319
All men road bike finishers, age 50-59 780 275 0.353
All men road bike finishers, age 50-54 448 184 0.411
All men road bike finishers, age 50 100 55 0.550

Except for the first line, all mountain bikes and tandems are thrown out.    In my own closest category, I finished 275/780, or the 35th percentile, so I am pretty pleased.  By comparison, I had never broken past the 50th percentile in the ETP, in any category.

Bottom line.  I can now safely say that I finished a sliver above mediocrity.

Jules’ time was 7:41:58.  Among women road bike finishers age 60-69, she came in 5th out of 21, and therefore a good effort.  In the end, she was pleased with that, although I am sure she feels she can do better next year.

I heard later that one of the ambulance scenes involved an oncoming car taking out 10 cyclists by turning left right through a pack!  Not sure if any deaths resulted but certainly very critical injuries.  So I guess I feel lucky to have finished, on several levels.

Lessons learned this race:

  • Pace yourself.  I went too hard early on, thinking I had trained for it.  Better to back off just a little bit and rest, draft lots, and save something for the long haul.
  • Drink water and consume electrolytes early and often.  Skipping lots of the rest stops is OK, but do not skimp on the water and fuel – get refills whenever you need them.
  • Try using gel packs or other fuel.  The Perpetuem was OK, but it occupied an entire water bottle.  Probably better to use it for Gatorade.
  • To use the Camelbak again or not?  I don’t know.  Seems silly to haul around ½ gallon of water for the first 30 miles, but it helps save a rest stop or two.  Still, with the river crossings, you get early fill ups anyway.
  • I learned later that my friend Court, who started in the front of the Gold section, actually rode right through the first (Santa Cruz) river crossing.  I estimate this will save about 4-5 minutes.  Add on at least 7 more minutes saved at the start, and this is a decent payoff for getting up so early.   Additionally, I think the front runners experience much less clogging early on, and get stopped much less at intersections, potentially saving even more minutes.