The Century Ride: MS City to Shore

(This is the fourth and final penultimate installation of “All The Things I Should Have Been Blogging”. If you’d like to go back in time, here are the prior entries:

After this, I’ll try to get back on a more regular update schedule, instead of letting months go by with nary a word.)

The day of the century dawned … early. Oh, so very early. The alarm went off before 4am, and we headed out in the wee (and dark) hours for the hour drive to Cherry Hill, NJ. I’d been repeatedly warned to get to the start location as early as possible to avoid traffic backups getting into the parking lot — and I’m glad we took heed of those warnings! Other friends thought they would be there early enough, and ended up sitting in traffic for so long that they were late getting out on the course, and missed the cut-off time to stay on the century course.

Once we arrived, we headed across the lots of the PATCO Woodcrest station to locate my team. We had a tent set up, and had been told our packets would be at the tent — but mine wasn’t. I knew I had missed the cut-off date to have my packet mailed to my home, but my team didn’t know where my information was. They sent me to the VIP tent (for all riders who raised over $1,000) and they didn’t have my packet, either — but quickly assigned me a new rider number, gave me a VIP pass, bib and a commemorative jersey.

One thing I learned this summer is that I get pre-ride jitters. And the longer or more challenging the ride is, the earlier I get jitters. For the Odell ride, I had jitters starting a full week ahead of the ride. For the MS Ride, my jitters were more easily dismissed: there were so many other riders! There was so much more road support! But my nerves kicked in full-force when my team didn’t have my packet, and I was still jumpy even after I got everything I needed.

One downside to getting there so early was that we didn’t have much to do but stand around and wait. All I could think about was the massive amount of people gathering, which would lead to one of my least favorite things: the mass start. While I gained much better handling skills and confidence over the course of the summer, being bunched up in masses still makes me nervous; there’s a point at which your own control of the bike becomes moot, and you’re dependent upon those around you to also be in control. Shifting your balance wrong at exactly the wrong moment, brushing too close too close to someone who then over-corrects in an attempt to avoid you — it doesn’t take much for one rider to take out another (or several others). All that was running through my mind as I waited and tried, distractedly, to make conversation with those around me.

Eventually, however, it was time. We gathered for a team photo, then filed into loosely organized corrals to get ready to roll out. I’m not sure how many people started out from this location — but there were somewhere in the range of 6,000-8,000 people registered, and many of them were registered for the two longer routes (75 and 100 miles) that started at this location. We went out in waves, and it was amazing. There were definitely some slightly nervous moments — someone would slow down too much, someone would put a foot down, people would yell back, “Slowing!” or “Stopping!” to prevent a pile-up — but, for the most part, it was just … jaw-dropping. Winding through pre-dawn streets, headlights blazing and tail-lights blinking as far as the eye could see, both ahead of me and behind me. A seemingly endless flow of riders, calling out to each other and cheering with pent-up excitement.

The morning started out rather cool; as an admitted temperature wimp, I had layered up on my upper half: a jersey, arm-warmers, and a lightweight jacket. I learned pretty early on in the Spring that my legs really aren’t bothered by the cold when I’m pedaling. By the time I was about 15 miles into the ride, I was warm enough to strip off the jacket, roll it up and tuck it into the straps on my Camelbak. Several other riders pulled over at the same time to do the same thing, and I lost count of how many passing riders called out to make sure we were okay.

The weather was simply perfect for the entire day; clear skies, mild breezes, low humidity. Cyclists dream of this sort of weather for long rides — I couldn’t have been luckier. I passed the first rest stop at about 20 miles in; it was already a mob scene, and I didn’t need anything. I quickly started questioning that decision — having never ridden 100 miles before, I felt like I should be taking short stretch breaks whenever possible to prevent soreness and excessive tiredness later on in the ride. After passing the 20-mile rest stop, I decided I’d stop at each rest stop, whether I needed anything specific or not. Even if all I did was take a two-minute break to stand, walk and stretch, I was sure it would be worth it later in the ride.

I’m glad I stopped at future rest stops. The spirit and energy of the volunteers was amazing. At one stop, I thought I was hearing a drum line before I got there; when I came around the corner, it was a double line of people holding plastic gallon jugs partially filled with gravel, and shaking them in rhythm as they cheered for incoming riders. At every rest stop, there were people serving out food, running to fill water bottles, checking on riders, sending them for mechanical assistance — the amount of support provided was really impressive. I’ve done plenty of supported rides, and several charity rides, but I’ve never seen as many SAG vehicles and mechanics as I did throughout this ride.

The first 50 miles went by fast — faster than I had expected. I was posting a brief update to my Facebook feed at each rest stop — I had one friend who said she’d be near the 55-mile rest stop, and FB updates were a quick way to let her and other friends know how I was progressing. I wasn’t really looking at time until I saw that she had posted a reply to my “30 miles in” update, and was rushing to make it out to her planned spot on the course. That’s when I looked at the time and realized I was going faster than I had originally expected — but I felt amazing. I had predicted my times based on my average speeds for prior long rides, and most of my long rides had more elevation gain than this ride would.

It seemed like I was at the halfway point before I knew it. I actually didn’t even really mark the actual halfway point — I stopped at the rest stop at 45 miles, and then suddenly I was at 52-ish miles, and there was a black SUV parked on the side of the road, and there was a sign with my name on it, and my friend and her kids waving. She had come out loaded for a potentially exhausted rider: she brought water, Gatorade, and a variety of snacks (raisins, Cliff Bloks, Honeystinger waffles) and I was surprised at how little I needed. I had made myself eat a few bites at each rest stop, but was well ahead of my appetite, and I was well hydrated — the only thing I was missing was the bottle of Gatorade I’d forgotten in the fridge when we left the house at our ridiculously early hour. I stood and stretched, chatted with her and the kids, and eventually took the bottle of Gatorade (it fit in my bottle cage!) and pushed on.

The next official rest stop — at mile 55 — was only a few short miles later, and this is where one of my friends was volunteering. Surprisingly, it was also where my boyfriend was able to stop — after dropping me off, he had waited for riders to clear out of the start zone and then hit the road himself. I thought there would be way too many riders on the road for him to be able to catch me at a specific rest stop, but I found both him and Paula (of Keep Smiling, Keep Moving) within seconds of pulling into the rest stop.  I was excited to see both of them, and still couldn’t get over how good I felt.

… and I think I’ll pick up the second half of the ride in my entry, as this one is getting lengthy.


Peter Odell Memorial Ride

(This is the third installation in the “All The Things I Should Have Been Blogging” series. I didn’t realize this was going to become a series; if you need to catch up, here is Part 1 and here is Part 2.)

Every year, the Bicycle Club of Philadelphia (BCP) hosts a ride in memory of a long-time club member and ride leader, Peter Odell. I had been reading the website for the ride for a few weeks, nervously going back and forth about whether or not I could do it. I got a boost of encouragement from several club members, and from the fact that I realized I had to be able to do it; I needed to be able to complete the distance if I was going to be ready for my century. While the support on the ride would be limited, just having a map and cue sheet, planned stops, and knowing there were other riders out there made it more attractive than trying to get that kind of distance solo.

I signed up for the 70-mile route, then got an email a couple weeks before the ride: there were only two of us signed up for that route. Did we still want to ride it? The organizer put the two of us in contact with each other so that we could discuss our options, and after talking about pacing and recent rides, we eventually decided to go ahead and stick it out. Neither of us felt ready for the 90-mile route, and neither really wanted to drop back to the 50-mile route; our paces sounded relatively compatible, so it seemed worth giving it a try.

On the morning of the ride, I left the house at an ungodly hour and drove to New Hope, PA, which would be the start point for the vast majority of the riders. Only a few people were leaving from downtown Philadelphia for the longer (135 miles) route; most were riding the 90 mile route. Those of us doing either of the two shorter routes left our cars in the New Hope parking lot and hopped on a tour bus that would take us to our start points. I met Chris, my ride partner for the day, for the first time that morning.

The bus dropped us off on a small side street near Neshanic Station, NJ. We took a few minutes to make sure we had everything situated, and then we rolled out on sleepy, Sunday morning streets. We got our wrong turns out of the way early, but neither cost us more than about an extra mile. Before too long, we were rolling through beautiful countryside. When we had to pass through towns, we always seemed to do so on roads that kept us off the busiest streets, and we only saw real traffic a few times. We briefly followed the Raritan River, then slipped through Somerville and skirted Bridgewater. We dipped into the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, sped through Wachtung Reservation, Echo Lake and Nomahegan Parks. Even as the towns we passed through became bigger and more dense, we just seemed to sneak by the traffic on our own little streets.

As we entered Elizabeth, we met up with three other riders — and this was the perfect place to have a bigger group. Traffic was heavy, and one of the other riders was familiar with the area, knew the route well, and guided us through traffic snarls (the local mall on a holiday weekend) and onto a huge, deserted road that was lined on both sides by giant stacks of shipping containers. Next thing I knew, we were at the part of the ride I’d been worrying about: to cross the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers, we had to merge onto the Lincoln Highway. I was glad for the extra visibility that comes with a slightly larger group of riders, and also glad for the experience and confidence of the other riders, who had done this before. Traffic was flying, but we made it across the bridges without trouble. Before I knew it, we were flying through Jersey City and into Hoboken.

I will probably never forget coming down 1st Street and suddenly having the view open up: the Hudson River and, over the water, Manhattan. It was awe-inspiring and invigorating! I know my jaw dropped and my eyes got wider, and I know that I didn’t care a bit if I looked like a slack-jawed tourist. I was! It was a beautiful sight, and I drank it in as we rode up the waterfront to the 14th Street Terminal. There was a ferry pulling out when we arrived, but we only had to wait 20 minutes for the next ferry, and then we and our bikes were chugging smoothly across the Hudson River.

In Manhattan, we stuck to the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway until we reached the Brooklyn Bridge. Of all the places we rode that day, this ended up being the most harrowing! The promenade on the Brooklyn Bridge is divided by a painted line, with one side marked for pedestrians and the other marked for bicyclists — but there were plenty of people who paid no mind to those markings! Chris went ahead of me, and it was surprisingly slow going, as tourists stepped out in front of us to take pictures, or wandered down the middle without looking. Chris was announcing us as we came up the bridge, “Bikes! Bikes! Out of the bike lane!” and while most people moved out of the way, one woman just stopped in the center of our path and didn’t move. Chris was barely able to stop in time — and by “stop”, I mean that he rode into the wall to avoid her. Who knew the most stressful part of the ride would be this bridge?

It was a relief to be off the bridge and winding our way through Brooklyn; it was an even bigger relief to roll up to an intersection and realize that we were THERE: a quick left turn and we were at the final destination: Nu Hotel, where we could see our bus at the curb, and others from the club already gathering. I didn’t have to wait long before it was my turn to get a hot shower, and then a couple local friends met up with Chris and I to go to dinner nearby. It wasn’t long after that before we loaded our bikes carefully into a Ryder truck, loaded ourselves onto the buses and made our way back to New Hope.

I was home shortly after midnight, and it almost seemed unreal that I’d spent the entire day on my bike, and traveled to and through Manhattan and Brooklyn. Chris, who I’d never met before, ended up being an amazing ride buddy — we were well-matched pace-wise, and I had the benefit of a ride buddy who has traveled all over the world and had neat stories to tell (I felt like I didn’t hold up my end of the conversation particularly well, but I know I enjoyed hearing his travel tales!) The route was like magic; according to the club, Peter Odell first mapped out the route in 1993, and the ride ended in Little Italy and Chinatown. The ride was extended into Brooklyn via the Brooklyn Bridge in 1997 and, despite increased development along the route, it has remained largely unchanged since. That is some skillful route mapping!

Overall, that day — and its total of 78 miles — will probably always be one of my favorite days of cycling.


All the Things I Should Have Been Blogging: Part 2

Early in the season, I signed up for Bike MS: City to Shore, a weekend-long event with many different options (ride 25, 45, 75 or 100 miles in a day; ride one or both days). I picked the ride for several reasons; at the time I signed up, I would have ranked my reasons this way:

  1. The ride was scheduled late enough in the season — the last weekend of September — that I could be sure I’d have plenty of time to train.
  2. I knew at least a couple of my friends would be doing the ride, and many people from both cycling clubs.
  3. I have friends with MS, one who was just diagnosed last year, and I knew that the organization was one I could support.
  4. There was a better chance that it wouldn’t be brutally hot, since the ride was in late September.

Having the date marked on my calendar gave me extra determination on my weekday rides. It’s not that I was turning my rides into races or trying to do anything crazy; but I was less likely to skip a ride because I felt tired or because the skies looked threatening. If the skies looked threatening, I just crossed my fingers that we would get good miles before the rain hit. In past years, I wouldn’t even have shown up for a ride if there was rain on the radar.

Having this goal also acted as a nudge, pushing me out of my comfort zone to try rides in unfamiliar areas. I was already used to the roads in the area of the Monday night club ride; other than that, I had previously stuck to the Perkiomen Trail and the SRT. When I added the Thursday night club ride, I learned new roads, and how to handle traffic in an area where drivers weren’t as accustomed to seeing groups of cyclists on their rural and suburban roads.

I also knew that I could only take so much of the paved trails in the area before boredom would kick in — and getting bored, for me, is a sure path back to the couch. I joined more club rides on the weekends — one weekend, a group of us rode from Collegeville to St. Peter’s and back via a circuitous route of pretty, quiet, rural roads. We got 50 miles that day, and had an excellent time.

Another day, I met up with another woman from the club and we rode down the SRT to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where we met up with the Bicycle Club of Philadelphia. The plan was to ride 50 miles with them, then back out the SRT to our cars, for a total of about 76 miles. The ride was beautiful — we had an easy spin down the SRT, and then the ride from the Art Museum took us out through Fairmount Park and onto beautiful, quiet side streets, winding us out of the city towards Montgomeryville. It was great, right until we climbed a couple hills and I started feeling like I was pedaling through molasses. That’s when we realized my rear wheel was out of true … because I’d broken a spoke. We stopped at Whole Foods (the planned rest stop of the ride) and tried to make the wheel ride-able, but I ended up calling my boyfriend for a rescue. I was disappointed to only get 40 miles altogether that day.

Luckily, I had another opportunity to ride 75 miles in a single day coming up the following week, when I would join the Bicycle Club of Philadelphia again– this time, to ride my bike into Brooklyn on the Peter Odell Memorial Ride.

And that seems like a good place to pick up next time.

All the Things I Should Have Been Blogging: Part 1

After a short run with friends tonight, the conversation meandered over to one friend’s blog (Keep Smiling, Keep Moving) — particularly, why she writes about both the good and the bad workouts — and I lamented, “Man, I let my blog fall apart. This summer was the time I should have been blogging about my rides and my events, and I didn’t write a word.”

At some point, after repeatedly getting sick and backing out of races, it started to feel like being sick was all I had to talk about. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to talk about the cycles of illness, antibiotics and specialists. I didn’t want to entertain guesses about my illness or go into great detail (and I still don’t), but I felt like there was nothing else going on. My last post was almost a year ago — October 23, 2012 — and I had some new ideas for fitness, training and nutrition that I hoped would help reduce the amount of time I was sick. I set myself a few loose goals for what I wanted to do over the winter and spring. I met some of those goals, half-assed others, and wildly surpassed at least one.

You may have noticed a reference to rides in that first paragraph, rather than runs. I did succeed at my goal to spend more time on the bike, though I initially planned to use it for cross-training. However, after riding on the indoor trainer a couple times a week over the winter, by the time spring rolled around I was ready to get out and actually see movement as my wheels turned. I was done spinning in place.

I have ridden in the past with a great local cycling club, Suburban Cyclists Unlimited, so I re-joined the club, paid my first annual dues in a couple years, and started riding with them in April, the “official start” of their ride season. (There are club members who lead rides year round. I’m not that crazy … yet.) I initially started riding with the group every Monday after work, and eventually added the Thursday night club ride as well. On the weekends, I would do longer solo rides, mainly utilizing the Perkiomen and Schuylkill River trail networks. Eventually, I also joined another cycling club — the Bicycle Club of Philadelphia, and started joining them for some of their weekend rides from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

All this was great fun, but I like having goals. They help me focus, help me reach beyond what I did yesterday and push myself to do more tomorrow. They help me BEAT THE BLERCH or, as my friends have often said, “beat the couch”.

All of which is to say that, after putting myself on a running restriction … I signed up for my first-ever century ride.

(To be continued.)