RIDE REPORT (15aug2020): The DAMn - Day Across Minnesota - A Great Plan Meets Physical and Mechanical Reality
MINNEAPOLIS, United States (GNN, the Gravel News Network) -- Gerasimos G.
"Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
The source of this quote is Mike Tyson, but he might have been quoting Socrates, or maybe the kid in our neighborhood who threatened a man in the paint store after he was asked why he like the Beatles instead of the Rolling Stones.
When you have a plan, especially a really detailed one, the proper thing to do when it goes wrong is to share it. This is critical for the betterment of our species, especially our subspecies of cylcus humanus. We must not continue to fool ourselves into planning for the unplannable. Therefore, consider what follows to be part recap, part confession.
The Day Across Minnesota...
A word about The DAMn, since not everyone reading will know. The Day Across Minnesota is a 240-mile gravel road race that starts at 12:00a at the first click of a Saturday in August in Gary, South Dakota and traverses the width (at it's narrowest, thankfully) of Minnesota to a finish line just over the border with Wisconsin on the banks of the Mississippi. Riders have twenty-four hours to finish. I highly recommend you check out this documentary here.
In 2020, this Year of the Covids, the DAMn is one of the only gravel cycling events taking place (as it starts in South Dakota where, 400 miles east, lie the streets of Sturgis). This year, the organizers required masks at check-in and distancing at the start line.
Each year, after the fireworks go off on Main Avenue, the riders roll across the border into Minnesota, turn right onto the gravel at 110th Street. From this point, most of them will be alone, very alone, and very safely distanced for the next twelve* to twenty-four hours. (*I think the first finisher this year came in around 11:45a ... yes, before noon, meaning they did 240 miles at over 20mph clock-time on gravel roads. Freak!)
We'll get back to recapping and confessing and vengeful Gods in a minute. First, I wanted you to know that this is not my first DAMn rodeo. I rode the very first year, 2017, when Craigo and Pasdo and I had absolutely no idea about riding this many miles through the night on unknown roads.
We did it again in 2018 with the addition of Kevin, Koz, and Hammje -- this is the year of the documentary "Delta of Spirit" mentioned above. My "ride report" summaries are here for 2017 and here for 2018, and also can be found with some of my other ramblings on the website www.gravelcyclist.com.
(BTW -- on the car ride to Gary in 2017, Craigo and I called the VFW which was a key moment in the adventure which culminated in the publication of my first book A Brief History of James Ballentine and VFW Post 246.)
Leading up to this year's 2020 gravel cycling season, I upgraded my bike to a svelte carbon aero model (Cervelo Aspero with HED wheels), leaving my trusted steel beast "Manga Man" to commuting duties. I was aiming to trim about 1.5hrs off my DAMn time, though I can't say that I was adhering to anything that would qualify as a 'training plan', I was out logging long miles and listening to Homer's Iliad -- which is not exactly the same as having your directeur sportif threatening you from the sunroof of a Peugeot.
I didn't think I could go a whole lot faster -- maybe just enough to justify the bike purchase(!). My goal was focused on trimming down my stopping times to 10-15 minutes each stop. Not triathlon transition levels, but reasonable.
As a quick preview, here is a photo from mile 124 of yesterday's DAMn which indicates how far sideways things went. I will return to the beginning of the story in a minute.
I don't know what the Gods think about preparation, but I imagine they view it as a virtuous thing. But planning is not preparation, and I'm guessing that they hop right off their mountain at the opportunity to stir up troubles in the face of overly planful mortals.
A couple days before the race, I was nervously thinking of what I needed to bring and how I was going to trim my transition times. I ended up with a whiteboard and a marker and this is what happened. A masterpiece in cycling fantasy complete with food, riding pace, overall pace, time elapsed, items to pack, etc, etc, etc.
Getting there ...
This year, mostly due to the Covids, we separated into more cars. Unfortunately, we were also missing multiple riders. Carol and Randy and Pasdo need to scratch due to health issues. That left the new riders, Dan G of Duluth and Alison, plus Val (lantern rouge victor of 2017) and me. Paul Wegner, Craigo, and Alison's dad Paul were running support.
The start line...
Depending on which clock you looked at, it was either 11:30p or 11:44p, so we headed out to line up on Main Avenue with the other riders. The road was striped to indicate spacing areas, but everyone seemed to be spread out even more.
In the minute just before midnight, everyone was buzzing a bit to get their bike computers and lights started before the roll out.
Photo: Paul Wegner
The race is on...
At 12 bells, the fireworks went off and the flashing red and white lights of the bikes started rolling like a locomotive, creaking to start and soon to be flying across the empty and dark night.
The first section of the DAMn is flat, ever-so-slightly downhill, cool and dark, rolling over mostly hard-packed gravel with occasional sand traps ... and new for this year, potential craters(?!)
In a normal, non-pandemic year, there would be set checkpoints at which you would be handed a set of cue sheets for the next section. There would be cutoff times (at 6, 12, and 18 hours), waffles, donuts, coffee, water, and whiskey. This year, we had to set up our own checkpoints with our support team (Paul, Craigo, and Paul). I left my bike flask in the car.
As we got started, Dan and I quickly lost contact with each other. I moved into a group that was holding a pace around 20mph. This is a pretty good clip on a daytime road ride and we were on gravel in the dark. (Keep in mind, the leaders of the race were visible for a few miles and then gone, probably rolling at 25-28mph on this section).
I didn't know anybody around me, but was watching their tires and legs closely for signals. I didn't want to be behind anyone that appeared nervous or unsteady on the surfaces we were riding on -- especially at speed. Sometimes the safest thing to do is to go to the front, so I did several extended pulls, accepting the reduced drafting advantage but knowing that I could wave the group through and drop into 3rd or 4th wheel when I wanted to rest a bit. I happened to be at the front when we passed through the road closed signs mentioned above and was able to navigate a couple of small piles of sand that took out a few riders behind me.
There were no riders in sight ahead of us, but we picked up a few that had been spit out the back of the one or two groups that I believe were ahead of us. At this point, I had no idea how many riders were in our group or how tight it was, and there were zero opportunities to look back even at (or especially at) a turn when you might otherwise be able to sneak a glimpse.
I didn't know where Dan was -- if he had made it into the same group or not. Maybe around mile 30, Dan came up along side me -- "Hello, Nicholas!" This was great news! We were together and both moving at a good clip.
I needed a nature break -- perhaps my 20th of the day -- and now that Dan was there I was thinking I could indulge myself without losing the advantage of a drafting partner. So it was at mile 40, 45, 46.3, 50, etc that I was obsessed with the need to go, but I didn't mention anything because the group was moving at such a solid clip and I didn't want to lose that. I changed my position on the bike thinking it could provide more bladder space -- though I have absolutely no idea if this is a thing to do.
During this time, I also realized that I had an issue with my lighting. I had attached my Bontrager Ion light to a mount below my bike computer bracket (since it has a GoPro style mount which my light also has). With the amount of bumpiness in the ride, the weight of the light (it's but not a light light), was pulling the bracket downward. Not a big deal for a while, as I went to the front of the pack, I rotated the bracket back up into position to get proper light on the road and then left it alone when in the pack. (There's so much lighting from the other riders that it's hard to even tell which light is yours -- at the front, you mostly see long shadows of your legs slicing away at the ground.)
At 3:15a we arrived at our checkpoint at mile 64. We were ahead of plan, averaging 19.6 mph.
Paul and Craigo were on the left side of the road in Indy 500 pit crew formation. Paul brought over some tools and my checkpoint bag, I started to adjust the computer bracket and switched the light to a magnetic helmet mount, replaced my bottles, drank a small can of Coke, and we were out within 10 minutes.
We rolled slowly out of the checkpoint, positioning some of the food items into pockets, and then started rolling.
There is a period in all long-distance events that I have done which is the 'dark period' when the mind and body enter into a set of conniving negotiations. The body says it's tired and the mind says it's really not such a bad thing if you stop now because you have already accomplished a lot getting this far. And the mind sits with that thought a bit and agrees, then snaps out of the trance and demands the body to do it's part and stop all this manipulation. It's one thing to complain, it's another thing to start a mutiny, and anyway I am in charge here so keep your opium-scented serotonin to yourself. I am going to finish this because I said I was and I am not going to stop now anyway because by the time I can get picked up by a support car, you'd forget about this whole thing and I'd need to explain that I am actually okay and just needed a minute to pull myself together. I am not going to let you do that, so just keep your complaints to yourself. I am the mind and I am in charge.
The moon had risen from an orange crescent slipper into the sky with Venus following. By 5:30a, the sun was chasing it upward.
Dan and I were riding with various folks along the way, but the most noteworthy by far was the guy in a tank top, cargo shorts and work boots. He passed us just outside of Morton, around mile 85. He was crushing it in the best way possible -- not just in the gravel cycling mantra of 'ride what you brung' but in a tank top at 50F and rolling right up that hill!!
Tank Top Man, later in the morning. (Photo: Paul Wegner)
Meantime, I had started to develop some severe pain in my shoulders and they were not responding to any position adjustments. I was believing this was from my backpack though I now believe it started from the weight of the headlamp on my head and neck. I didn't stop to figure it out, but my mind was way behind the frontal attack that my body was staging. I was convinced there was no way but to abandon at the mile 124 checkpoint.
When we rolled into the checkpoint around 7:30a, my shoulder muscles were on fire. I told Dan to proceed without me and I asked for a chair. Paul covered me in a towel and blanket. Then I asked for donuts and coffee. And I sat there in the morning sun. Feeling more pain than exhaustion, and a sad frustration at the situation. We had averaged 15.3 mph in that section, slightly off pace, and now I was immobile in a chair at an otherwise random intersection of two gravel roads.
After about 15 or 20 minutes, my body having been lulled by sugars to give up some of it's protest, I stood up and asked Craigo to dig his thumbs hard into my shoulder muscles. Then I slapped each one about ten times really hard almost like Michael Phelps, and that seemed to work so I did it some more. I almost immediately felt the pain subside -- I was somehow okay and ready to push ahead. I put on a clean/dry jersey and rolled out (seriously, I don't understand how this happened).
With some coaching from Paul and Craigo, I decided to skip the backpack, and packed up my pockets with some food items and a couple of extra water bottles. The next checkpoint was at mile 184 -- about 60 miles that would take about 4 hours -- and it was going to be warming up.
Craigo snapped an "after" pic and I rolled off.
Miles 124-184 ...
Things proceeded well for a bit. I rolled into Henderson at mile 151 feeling worn down but better than the last checkpoint. I sat on a bench and had a Gatorade and a Snicker's, chatted with my cycling friend Nat who happened to be riding through town (weird timing), then moved on toward the next checkpoint at mile 184.
For orientation, Henderson is also along the Minnesota River, where it heads northward towards Minneapolis where it joins the Mississippi. There's a solid climb to get out of the valley and then the land continues to rise up slowly until the Cannon River valley takes over.
I was feeling okay and stayed within a pace that felt doable. I stopped once to take off my shoes and do some toe spreads and foot massage -- thanking them for not joining the other mutineers.
I arrived in good spirits at mile 184 where our support cars were lined up. I sat down for a bit and chatted -- no real motivation for fast transitions at that point -- then rode away toward the finish line. I was in no real hurry. It was a beautiful day to be on a bike.
Miles 184-200, then 240...
Something started happening soon after, but I was not sure exactly what it was. I was still riding okay, but my mind was getting mushy. Almost like a dream or a fever or a hangover -- my brain was thinking it was solving a problem and was going in circles on things that didn't contain any sense at all. There was no actual thought but just a shadow of a problem being solved, and my conscious brain was believing there was actually a real thought there so it was chasing it down to pull it from the fog for a closer examination. It was as if my mind had become a dog and a tail at the same time, chasing itself in a circle while I was pedaling along in the sun.
As I crossed the Cannon River just north of Northfield there was a throng of support crew folks on either side of the bridge, including Marty from the Almanzo-now-Heywood 100 gravel ride who offered up a a high-five on the bridge.
The bridge is concrete, and as I came over it I noticed a sound from my rear tire happening on each rotation. So mid-bridge, I pulled over to investigate.
I spun the rear wheel around and rubbed my hand over it. I first noticed a spot with some white rubbery substance on it -- I peeled it off and realized it was a semi-dry tubeless goo (tubeless bike tires contain a self-sealing liquid that seals up minor punctures like this one). When I peeled it off, a bit more fluid oozed out and then stopped -- problem solved? No. Well, maybe that one was.
A few more rotations and I noticed that the tire had blistered -- separation of the outer tread from the inner tire. At this point I was pissed off because I had had the same exact thing happen on the GRVL Drama (180 mile gravel event) that I attempted solo in late June. I had that tire warrantied and replaced with the same model. I couldn't believe it had happened again(!)
I walked across the bridge, found a place in the shade between a couple of support vehicles and sat down to call Paul. He said he would arrive in about 45 minutes.
I was clearly not thinking clearly. I thought that I was going to need to abandon and DNF ("did not finish") on the event.
I laid down in the grass rather dejected. It was still cool with dew in the shade. I fell asleep. My phone rang later and it was Paul who was looking for me at the bridge. (I guess he had called a few times and I didn't wake up?)
So, I got up thinking I was done and that I was going to load up my bike and drive with Paul to the finish -- until the friendly neighbors in the next car over offered me a tire. Then I realized that, yes, Dan had brought a spare tire and I could simply switch it out and then ride the final 40 miles. My bike wasn't actually broken, it was just a tire. Duh!!
So, Paul got out his tools and got to work on the tire. It was a pain to set up as the new tire as tubeless, so we inserted a tube and then I was ready to roll again. And, just like that, I was back in the race!
Now, by this time I had chewed up well over three hours in stoppage time between the scheduled stops, momentary shoulder pain convalescence, to my unplanned tire failure and corresponding nap. I was back on the course and feeling quite fresh. The last 40 miles of the DAMn is the hilliest section, but I was feeling good spinning up the hills and standing up to create some speed for the descents and small valleys.
After battling up Whiterock Trail, there is a descent to Hay Creek Trail in the woods just outside of Red Wing. Climbing the final gravel hill, there's a checkered flag where it converts to pavement for the final time.
From there, the houses begin to appear at the edge of the city of Red Wing.
Following the bridge over the Mississippi into Wisconsin on the new ped/bike bridge, and over to the left is Trenton Island and the finish line.
Back to planning. My plan was for 15.5 hours total time -- which would be at 3:30p. It was an aggressive goal but I wanted to be under 16hrs and that's how the math worked out on paper (or whiteboard). My actual finish was at about 6:45p -- 18 hours and 45 minutes to get across the state of Minnesota (15:12 riding time, so with 1hr stopping time I could've managed to be around 16:15 or 16:30).
Preparation versus planning ...
The plan was a failure in terms of finish time, but helpful in terms of the food and other items. I suppose the preparation was a success even if it lacked alignment with a plan (which was only created that a couple nights prior, so there's that).
The thing about the preparation was the miles on the bike and the experience of having been through the event before. I'm slightly shocked that I couldn't see past the immediate situation in the two moments where I was about to throw in the towel -- in the chair and with the tire. Thankfully, I pulled through those before making a decision, because I would've certainly realized later (maybe within a half hour) that these were surmountable challenges and I would've regretted dropping out.
Perhaps the biggest lesson is that having great support makes all the difference.
Thanks Paul and Craigo!
PS -- if you have read this far, I would congratulate you but I suspect that you need to get back to your job or some other important thing. But, before you leave the interwebs, I encourage you to visit the site of my favorite non-profit, Fresh Energy. Fresh Energy is shaping and driving bold policy solutions to achieve equitable carbon-neutral economies and electricity decarbonization. I am a proud member of the Board of Directors and want you to consider making a donation. Thanks!