This year, I decided to take a break from triathlons and just do one event: Ride Across INdiana (RAIN). I enjoyed that ride last year, and my wife said she and Abigail enjoyed the time.
I figured this would be a long, tough ride that would otherwise be uneventful. It didn’t seem bad last year: I used it as a training ride for Ironman Chattanooga, and it was a good time.
Last year, the conditions were perfect: high temperature was in the low 70s with occasional light rain, and a really nice west-to-east tailwind that made the last 45 miles wonderful.
No such joy this time.
Here is a simple comparison, by the numbers:
|High Temperature||77/light rain||97/sunny|
|Winds||18mph (tailwind)||16 mph (crosswind from south)|
|Total Riding Time (hrs:mins)||9:30||11:06|
|Avg Moving Speed (mph)||16.8||14.7|
I woke up at 4AM and began my preparation for the ride: brushed my teeth, strapped on my Garmin heart rate strap, checked my gear to see if I had forgotten anything.
Dangit!!!! I had forgotten sunscreen! And I was going to need it today!
So, making no delay, I hightailed it to Kroger and bought some sunscreen. On the way back, I pulled back into St. Mary of the Woods College–where we were staying, and where the ride began–to see a couple riders taking off early. (That is legal, as this is a ride, not a race. As long as a rider completes the course before the 9PM cutoff, it counts.)
It was 5:25 and still dark outside. It was already 80 degrees.
This was going to be a long, hard slog.
Still, I felt ready.
While I was not training for Ironman–and therefore was not as fit as I was last year–I was still pretty darn fit: I had three century rides in the last 2 months, and I had done a fair amount of strength work, as I had bulked up considerably. I wasn’t in Ironman condition, but I was still in good shape. And my training rides were in hot conditions.
I figured I would go slower, but this course shouldn’t be too tough. I had two extra tire tubes “just in case”, and I am experienced in changing out flat tires. If I ran out of fluids, I knew there were convenience stores around. I carried extra cash just for that purpose. I also knew that my wife would be trailing me on the back section.
I made it to the start line with 5 minutes to spare before the official start. There seemed to be a solid turnout. According to the folks in-the-know, the number of starters was less than they had last year, but not by much.
My problems began early: My rear tube blew out at mile 6. Apparently, my tire pressure was too low, and I hit a bad section of road, causing a “pinch flat”. I was able to swap a new tube, and a SAG driver had a pump ready for me, so I did not have to use my CO2 cartridges. I was back in business within 5 minutes.
Unfortunately, I had trouble getting a good pace going due to (a) many traffic lights and (b) bad road quality. I also noticed the climbs, due to the lack of a tailwind. I was clearly working harder for my miles. But I still felt ok considering the conditions.
Pulling into the first rest stop at mile 39, my wife was relieved to see me. She thought I had suffered a really bad accident, as I took longer than she expected to get to the first stop. My riding pace at the time was close to 15mph, but the flats and the traffic congestion–and traffic lights–slowed me down. But at the rest stop, I got some food down, got some fluids down, refilled my bottles, kissed the wife and toddler, and headed back out.
On the second stretch, I felt better and my pace was improving, even as the temperature climbed. I was having a good time until mile 57: that’s when my front tire blew out.
Thankfully, I was ready for that: I had a spare–although I was down to my last one–and was changing it out when a Good Samaritan came by. He let me use his pump–once again keeping my CO2 cartridges unused–and even gave me a bottle of ice water. I was back in business.
Pulling into the second stop, at mile 64, I still felt pretty good. Even with the flat, I was doing well. For the sake of precaution, I purchased two additional tubes from the SAG mechanic at the rest stop. I figured I’d rather have them and not need them, than need them and not have them. In this heat, anything can go wrong.
I made it a point to get more food down, refill the bottles, get some more fluids down, kiss my wife and toddler–who was having a great time–and head back out.
The ensuing 28 miles were brutal. Indianapolis traffic slowed us all down: traffic lights, traffic circles, stop signs, railroad tracks, and some stretches of bad road quality. Making matters worse, I ran out of water and Gatorade. I could feel the heat; I knew I needed to hydrate.
At about mile 87, I found a CVS. I pulled in to get some Gatorade. The manger saw me and invited me to use his walk-in cooler–which was 38 degrees!–to cool off. (I <3 CVS.) Still, I felt pretty good going into the lunch stop at mile 92.
Remarking about the heat, I told my wife. “This isn’t Hell, but I can see it from here.”
From there, I got some food down, got some water and Gatorade down, refilled the bottles, kissed the wife and toddler, and headed back out: 21 miles to Greenfield.
The stretch to Greenfield would have been a killer, except there were several wonderful families who handed out bottled ice-cold water to riders. I had, once again, expended both my water and my Gatorade, and those Good Samaritans saved my butt. (Every finisher with whom I conversed, shared the same story.)
Pulling into Greenfield at mile 113 2 was lonely–no personal service vehicles were allowed, so my wife was camped out after that on US40–so I did my business quickly: refilled the water bottles, peed, got food and fluids down, and headed out.
My only problem: I forgot to unpause my Garmin. As a result, I lost about a quarter mile on my data feed.
Turning onto US40, I saw my wife parked at a Speedway station. I stopped, gave her a quick update, kissed her and the toddler, and headed out. We agreed to meet every 8 miles. I was feeling the heat, so I figured I’d sit in the car for a couple minutes to cool down. She also had extra Gatorade in case I needed a refill before I pulled into the final rest stop at Dunreith.
That last stretch of US40 was pure brutality. The heat radiated from the ground, ensuring that we had no relief, even as the air temperature began to slowly drop. The climbs, while not as difficult as the hills of Kentucky’s century routes, are still noticeable when you’re on the back end of a 160-mile ride with heat indexes above 100 degrees. Being able to cool off in the car was a game-changer.
I pulled into the Dunreith rest stop, with 28 miles to go, exhausted. I knew I was going to finish, but this was going to suck. I inhaled more fluids, ate some carbs, got some pickle juice down, and sat in the car to cool off. Then I kissed the wife and toddler and headed out.
I met my wife 8 miles later, and–to my surprise–felt pretty good. I was tired, but I felt better than I did at Dunreith. I told her to meet me in 10 miles.
About 10 miles later, I met her again. As I cooled off, I had one problem: I needed water, not Gatorade, as I was almost out of water. I told her to meet me at the next gas station–or at 5 miles–to get some water. At this point, I had about 10 miles to go. The next stop was going to be precautionary only. I was getting strength back.
With 5 miles to go, I saw my wife on the opposite side of the road. A Good Samaritan had a bottle of ice-cold water: exactly what I needed going into the final climb! Oh, and there was shade now, as it was later in the day. I thanked God for the shade. I told my wife, “Meet me at the finish…we’ve got this!”
The last 5 miles felt easy. Yes, there was a climb left, but it didn’t feel so bad with the shade and some cold water. I finished with 45 minutes to spare. At the finish, I chatted with the folks at the finish line, enjoyed the moment with my wife and the toddler, and downed some chocolate milk.
After the finish, I followed the RAIN Facebook group for updates from other riders. There were mass casualties: riders were dropping like flies. Heat exhaustion TKOd a large swath of folks.
Every rider I know who finished indicated that the Good Samaritans with the ice water saved their day. I can attest to that. The DNF rate was above 37%, which exceeds the mega-brutal Ironman Chattanooga 2016, which was in comparable weather. Heat exhaustion took a lot of riders out of the fight. Several ended up leaving in ambulances. To my knowledge, however, there were no fatalities.
Another dynamic I saw was the support crews out there: just as my wife did for me, other riders had help from their spouses and/or cycling clubs. They parked their cars, vans, and RVs at churches, gas stations, even open fields, providing food, water, and A/C for riders on that last stretch of US40.
As I look back on the day, I was happy to come out on top. I had never suffered a flat tire during a century ride, and I took TWO of them in the first 60 miles. I had never biked in conditions this hot, but this time I did it for 160 miles.
That tormenter of Ironman triathletes–Ironbitch–showed up for a rematch, and she brought the heat with her. I took her best shot, and I won. I even had the legs to tour the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB with the wife and toddler the next day.
As I talked with my wife last night, I remarked that I am not an elite cyclist.
She laughed. “Why do you say that?”
Me: “I’m not pulling that course at 18-19+ mph. To me, that would be the sign of an elite cyclist.”
Her: “You may not be the fastest one on the course, but I’m not sure that matters.”
I don’t have elite speed; I do have elite endurance.
But there is one important difference in me now compared to what I once was: I don’t quit. Yes, I’m in better shape than the average bear, but let’s be honest here: fitter people than I punched out on Saturday. You need to be fit to finish a 160 mile ride in that heat, but you need more than physical fitness; you need mental toughness.
Learning that isn’t an academic exercise. You can only learn that the hard way. I’ve suffered DNFs, so I know the humiliation that comes with it. That teaches you more about perseverance than anything. In general, you don’t start learning until you get pushed to the edge of what you think your limits are.
In my case, as I am getting old, I have severe disk problems in my neck, middle back, and lower back. My heat tolerance isn’t what it once was.
Still, in the nearly two decades with such health issues, I’ve learned to adjust and improvise, and focus on what I could control, and roll with the punches. I couldn’t make it cooler outside, but I think of all the times I got into the car to cool off. I think of the time I walked into the cooler at CVS to cool off. I think of the times I stopped to grab some ice water, the time I sat in front of a fan.
Even with the 2 flats. Even with heat exhaustion. I had no doubt about the outcome, only the finish time. I didn’t quit; I just stopped to regroup and get my bearings. I was never out of the fight.
Over the years, I have learned to embrace the suck.
And on Saturday, I French-kissed it.