23 March 2015

Attack Nikko! Attack Beef Line (feebly, not beefly)! Saitama BRM321 400km. And 2015 Race for the HAM'R

As planned, Jerome and I rode the 400 km Saitama Audax "Attack Nikko and Beef" event this Saturday (into Sunday early morning).
The Ti Travel bike with Doppelganger cover.
Not designed as a "rinko" but for storing a bike inside a house/apartment without getting grease on other items.
But great to take the bike on an uncrowded train without removing the wheels.  Do not try in rush hour.
Yes, 400 kilometers is a long ride.   Depending on the terrain and the conditions, it is a distance that lies, for most of us, near the outer edge of the "just gut it out" and "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" range and ahead of the range where "you really need to think this through and plan a bit if you want to finish in a decent time and avoid injury."  So the perfect distance for me to ride together with Jerome.
Indeed, 400kms is longer than Steve Abraham (UK) or Kurt Searvogel (US) rides in a day, as they both this year try to break the 1939 Tommy Godwin Highest Annual Mileage Record (the "HAM'R"). Of course, they ride between 300 and 400 kms EACH DAY, EVERY DAY, and will need to keep it up the entire year if either hopes to take the HAM'R.  You can track them here at the Ultra Marathon Cycling Association's HAMR page or the related Strava Club.  
At first, I was hoping Steve Abraham would win, as he was riding in the cold and wet of the English winter, while Kurt Searvogel was clocking 20-30 kms more each day riding in Florida.  Yes, flat and warm Florida.  Do those miles even count?  And then again there was Kurt's photo on his Strava page -- sleeveless jersey reeks of triathlon and time trial.  Perhaps he is using aero bars?  No, even worse, he is using (at least some of the time) a recumbent.  Does that even count?  Did Tommy Godwin get to use aero bars or rest his back riding a recumbent back in 1939?
But then I noticed that Searvogel has shifted his rides to Louisiana, Alabama, his home Arkansas and elsewhere.  These are the most dangerous roads in the U.S. for a cyclist -- most cyclist traffic deaths per mile.  And he will be giving anyone who pays attention a show, as he shifts around a good part of rural America.  And I read a bit more about him, and saw that yes, Kurt is a real endurance cyclist, doing RAAM and other events before a minor dalliance with triathlon.  Recumbent -- perfectly legal for ultra marathon events and extremely clever for this kind of effort -- rest your back and use different muscles on your recumbent days, switch back to the road bike for days with more climbing. And I noticed the age of the two riders -- Kurt (52) and Steve (41).  Advantage Kurt.  Steve can always try again in 11 years, when he is 52, to get a "fair" match.  Then one day Kurt lost his ride data because of a technical glitch.  Ouch.  Been there, and feel his pain.
Also, Kurt started his ride 9 days after Steve, so Kurt will always know exactly how far he needs to ride to beat Steve for the record.  Clever.  Yankee clever.  Kurt obviously thought this one through and intends to win, absent health issues. And after seeing crazy Slovenians, Austrians and other Europeans take RAAM too many years in a row, and the Brits win a truck full of track cycling medals at recent Olympics, it is great to see an American competing at this level in an ultra endurance cycling event.  So I am declaring in favor of Kurt.
Of course Steve's fans are upset.  Lots of trash talk on the web.  It is never fun to get steamrolled by a super-power.  Not fun, not amusing, no sense of humor (except maybe an attempt at an over-bearing one).  I get it.  But Kurt is not some rich hedge fund manager who buys the best equipment, coaching and medical assistance and wins the race with money prevailing over grit.  No.  He is an everyman.  If he can do it, you or I could do it.  He has an offer to let people ride with him for a day.  If you can hang with him, the ride is free.  If you cannot keep up, you pay $200 for the privilege, and he gets a nicer motel room and gets to order the steak for dinner.
[UPDATE:  Within a week after writing this, Steve Abraham suffered a crash after a moped collided with his bicycle.  He suffered a broken ankle that will require surgery and pins/plates for full recovery.  Sadly, Steve's 2015 effort has ended, and what could have become a great duel ends prematurely.  And Kurt's trek gets a bit lonelier.]

Where was I.  Yes, the 400 km Brevet.  My colleague T. Aiko and his son live near the start and so stopped by to wish us off.  As some of the riders started out, I narrated for Aiko-san "there goes Kondo-san ... he often wins the Tokyo-Itoigawa Fast-Run and gets the fastest brevet times in Japan."  I asked Kondo-san if he was going to win Tokyo-Itoigawa this year.  He said, "what are you talking about, no way this "ji-ji" (grandpa) can do it!"  Anyway, he can still finish a 600km Brevet in 24-30 hours, to my 36.  
And there goes Tominaga-san. I told Aiko-san:  "He commutes every day passing by my house on his 50 km daily round trip from Koganei to Marunouchi and back).  He must ride 20,000 km or more each year.  I know those are two riders with whom I cannot keep up!"
Jerome and I pose at the start.  
One of the woman Audax riders we regularly see-who arrived on the same train today- has some fun with our photo.
Pre-start briefing
Jerome and I mounted up and headed out.  A few minutes later, we came to a red light and waited ... catching some riders in front of us. ... Kondo-san, Tominaga-san and one other Saitama veteran with a chiseled face and a fast bike were there, and O-Hori-san.  We managed to stay with them the first 16 kms, the red lights giving us a chance to catch up and catch our breath.  Then I lost them on one light, and Jerome waited for me at the next.  Eventually, we formed a group of three with O-Hori-san and rode together until Jerome and I took a break at around the 78km mark.
The last Brevet for Jerome's Positivo Espresso special "shingo mushi kyoka" bib shorts.  Time for new club kit!
Fortunately, I had some safety pins that patched the growing hole, as I really did not want to ride behind this view for 400 kms.
I will not give a blow-by-blow on this semi-epic ride.  Just a few points to mention:
1.  The route out through North Saitama and central Tochigi, around the west side of Kanuma/Utsunomiya, is a masterpiece.  This could be a very ugly stretch, but somehow Saitama Audax has found back roads that make it tolerable, even pleasant.  The one monotonous stretch -- 20 kms or more straight on an agricultural road -- seemed much shorter than when I did it back in 2010. Kudos to Saitama Audax.  I do remember seeing a number of Mihara Junko posters on this stretch, a popular LDP upper house member who wants to revive use of one of the few political phrases banned from discourse by the US occupation in post-war Japan -- either does not know her history, or more likely does not care about offending the neighboring countries.
Typical South Tochigi scenery, from 7-11 parking lot
2.  Tochigi Route 14 south of Nikko - the Kobugahara Kaido - is a very nice road, highly recommended for cycling.  The course follows a river (the Oashigawa 大芦川) up a very gradual valley.  The road has almost no traffic, and the river water is clear and deep blue.  I wanted to stop for a picnic.  But no time to lose.  Eventually, the road leaves the river and climbs through woods over a ridge to the north, and descends to the area around Okorogawa (小来川) and Enkoji (円光寺).  This is where I remember hearing the dull ringing of temple bells on a misty morning in 2010, and thinking it must be a sacred place.
On Tochigi Route 14 -- Kobugahara Kaido 
More Route 14. Light through clouds.
And more Route 14
3. I had checked the weather forecast very carefully before this ride, mostly in fear of cold rain.  Cold is fine.  Rain is fine.  The combination can be very tough to beat during one of these events.  Once the body and your gear get both cold AND wet, you will not warm up easily.  So I was happy to see the night before the ride that we would very likely have no rain.  And even the temperatures looked perfect -- in the 10-15 degree C range in daytime, and dipping into the 0-5 degree range a night.  But the coldest night temperatures (~0 C) were in Nikko and Nasushiobara, which we would pass in late afternoon or early evening.  Then we would go through Otawara, on into Ibaraki and through hilly but more coastal areas.  Kasuma and Tsuchiura low temps looked a bit warmer, and if we rode according to plan we would be into the flat area around Tsukuba, warmer yet, then Noda and Kasukabe, in the coldest period around 4-6AM.  Wrong.
At Nikko Western Village--a "public private third sector" project that quickly closed its doors.  Unfortunately, from this angle the Presidents' faces are not visible on the replica of Mt. Rushmore (made of asbestos!) in the distance. 
Starting the gradual climb to Nasu Shiobara checkpoint ... nearing dusk.
No hint of red/pink color in the sky ... made me wish for the pale pink skies of Yatsugatake at dusk.
I remember seeing these flags 2 1/2 years ago in Shioya and Yaita, Tochigi.  Basically "don't turn our city into a nuclear waste dump!"  "Firmly opposed!"  Jerome confirmed that the flag is firmly planted and will not easily be removed.  The flags are still there. And now there are lots of wooden nicely painted, semi-permanent signs as well to the same effect.
We emerged from a quick, cheap dinner at a Nasu Shiobara "Gusto" restaurant around 7PM. One other rider had eaten there as well and left the restaurant 15 minutes ahead.  I was surprised to see him outside still.  He was now covered head to toe, thick shoe covers, face mask, jacket etc. and was talking about how cold it was, and would be.  I shrugged it off -- this is Nasu, once we get down in the valley we will be fine.  No, it stayed cold.  Really cold.  And got colder.  I put on all the gear I had brought, and was still cold.  Then my stomach started to act up.  And I got really really tired. Never do one of these rides without getting LOTS of sleep, EXTRA sleep the 2-3 previous nights. Do not try to skimp on sleep.
Enjoying my dinner at Gusto!
We did get a second wind after dinner and passed many riders who had lapped us as we dined.  But then it was a long hard, dark, cold slog over the hills of north Ibaraki to Hitachi Omiya.
4. My stomach was churning, I was sleepy, cold, and no power.  I think I should have avoided the Orangina at Nikko, and/or the orange juice at Gusto.  Jerome patiently waited for me ... many times. At the rest stops he said my face seemed to have lost all its color.  If this had not been a brevet, I would have just found someplace warm, anyplace warm, and pulled off to sleep ... even hopped a train home.  But this was a brevet, and a PBP qualifier, and we had lots of time before we would risk a DNF ... so instead I went on.
The hills on the last half are not high, but they add up.
I must have set a record slow pace along the "Beef Line", an agricultural road of constant ups and downs through the COLD hills of western Ibaraki. Why is it the "beef line"?  Well, at the northern entrance an odor of animal manure suggests that there really are cattle nearby.  Many riders passed me on the Beef Line.  Jerome could have easily done this course in 20 hours without me.  He is (again? as usual?) much stronger than I am.  Perhaps I could have done it in 20-21 if I had not suffered from this particular combination of stomach, sleep and cold issues?
At the Tsuchiura check point, after the coldest section had ended and we were back at the flatlands, I finally broke down and bought a 300 yen pair of gloves at the convenience store, to squeeze as a liner inside my real gloves.  All of a sudden my hands were warm.  Why didn't I do this 5 hours and 2 PC's earlier?  My brain must not have been functioning at 100%.  Indeed.
Anyway, my stomach and body recovered some by first light, and the last 75 kms at least were covered at a reasonable pace, to get to the finish in just under 24 hours.  A group of four, including Kondo-san and Tominaga-san, finished in under 17 hours.  Based on his Strava page, Tominaga-san also rode to and from his home, making the entire effort almost 500 kms.  Of course, since he finished in the middle of the night, he did not have an option to ride the train--one of the downsides of riding these courses too fast!
On the Hibiya Line -- we took it from Shin Koshigaya to the terminus at Nakameguro.
No worries about sleeping through our stop.
Home, a hot bath, then sleep.  Sleep all Sunday afternoon.  An hour or two up and about.  Then sleep Sunday evening and Sunday night through to Monday morning.  Actually, sleep on the Hibiya Line even before getting home.  Over 12 hours total, deep sleep.  And I feel great.  Yes, my muscles ache a bit.  But my body is relaxed and mind is clear.  The muscle aches are temporary, and just evidence the breaking down of muscle tissue that leads to regrowth.  In a week or two I will end up stronger.  On the road to PBP.

[UPDATE:  The results are out from Saitama Audax.  Approximately 90 riders, only 5 of whom failed to finish.  56 faster than me (not counting Jerome ... who could have done this many hours faster had he not waited).  29 slower than me.  The fact that only 5 out of 90 riders DNF'ed confirms this is not at all a hard 400 km ride, and it was only my errors in preparation and food/drink that pushed us toward the back of the pack.]


joewein said...

Well done and congratulations, David! Getting the clothes right for the temperatures is also one of my big worries for BRM328 the coming weekend. I will try to get plenty of sleep upfront too. However, I don't think I have to worry too seriously about whether I can qualify for PBP, more about whether I'll DNF at the 300, 400 or 600 km stage! ;-)

David Litt said...

Hi Joe:
As for clothing, I always think that "less is more" since the worst that can happen is to get overheated, drip in sweat, then the sweat chills and brings hypothermia. Exceptions are the extremities - head, feet and hands -- and the need for decent wind block layer.

I would have been fine but for the sleep/stomach issues that slowed my pace and probably affected my metabolism and ability to think straight. My lower body was fine with the Q36.5 Salopette long bib tights, even though they are thin. Upper body was a bit cold with SS inner layer, SS jersey, arm warmers and a very thin, light and tight wind breaker that is too small -- will not zip closed with gear in my jersey back pocket and constrains me if zipped, so was open under my audax reflective vest. My head was warm enough once I figured out ... somewhere on the Beef Line ... to use my "light" headcover as an inner liner instead of outer, where it crushed the warmer head cover and did not tightly cover my ears. Gloves -- it was my mistake not to bring a decent liner.

So with a decent set of glove liners and a jacket that fit, the clothes would have worked fine for a range between 0 and 16~17 degrees C.

If you go in expecting to DNF ... you may do so. Otherwise, I cannot imagine why you would not be able to get through a 300, 400, and with a bit of planning a 600. Gambatte!

David Litt said...

A futher update on the Steve Abraham vs Kurt Searvogel saga ... Abraham knocked off the bike by a moped, broken ankle will require surgery and pins ... so his reach for the HAM'R ends prematurely, this time.

David Litt said...

One more update on Kurt Searvogel ... he will be done in 2 days, and has broken the record and is currently about 500 miles over Godwin's 1939 record, ... and should end up about 900 miles ahead if he rides the last two days at his "normal" pace. Incredible.