Saturday, November 20, 2010

Challenged at the Iceman Cometh Challenge

So, this report is two weeks late in coming. By web standards, that's ancient history, so I thought, at this point, who cares? But people keep asking me about it, so I thought I'd put the whole sordid tale here for posterity. It is not a tale of strength and triumph, but one of misery and woe.

The Iceman Cometh Challenge is a mountain bike race held on the first Saturday in November in the northern reaches of Michigan's lower peninsula (not up in the U.P.). It's usually around 27 or 28 miles (depending on how they need to route the course from year-to-year). The course is not a loop; it's point-to-point, starting in the city of Kalkaska, and ending just outside Traverse City, taking racers over gravel roads, dirt roads, doubletrack, singletrack, and cross-country ski trails. This was the 21st annual running of the Iceman, and my eighth time testing my off-road riding skills at the event. Evey year, I've managed to improve my time over the previous year, and/or improve my position within my age group. I didn't expect that I'd be able to continue my trend of continuous improvement this year, though.

As the name Iceman suggests, the conditions for the race are often what you might expect for the weather in northern Michigan in November. However, in recent years, the weather has been more and more what you might call downright pleasant. The 2009 race saw temperatures peek up into the 60's, with the joke among insiders that they should start calling the race the "Niceman."

That being said, it seems like every year, no matter how cold or how warm the conditions were, I have ended up being over-dressed during the race. The old saying goes, "If you're warm enough before the start, you'll be too warm during the race." But it's always so hard to dress lightly enough as you're standing around the parking lot with the wind and snow flurries whipping around. For the '09 race, I was faced with the rare dilemma of not have enough warm-weather clothing, and had to race in that 60-degree day in a long-sleeve wool jersey, knickers, and ski socks. I knew, based on the forecast, that it was expected to be a lot colder this year, but I was determined not to make the same mistake of over-dressing once again. It was with that in mind that I thought, when packing the day before leaving, "Nah, I don't need those winter cycling boots. Nah, I don't need those winter cycling gloves."

I had taken my cyclocompter off of my handlebar to avoid any mishap with it possibly flying off while the bike was on the roof rack during the long drive. While getting my bike ready before the race, I zip-tied my number plate in place, then realized I didn't leave enough slack to get my computer back on. I loosened the computer mount, trying to get it to a position that would work, but it seemed like either the numer plate pressed down on it, constantly resetting it, or the number pushed up on it, making it impossible to reset or switch modes. I finally seemed to get it to a position that would allow it work, although I might not be able to see it very well while riding.

Further bike preparation involved pumping up my tires; my ideal pressure for mountain biking is around 37psi, which I'm accustomed to getting using my own floor pump. When I used my friend Brent's floor pump, when I got to 37, my tires seeme a bit more firm than they should have been. I let a bit of pressure out, hoping that would do the trick.

I managed to wiggle my up to the starting line at the front of my wave group. Brent was scheduled to start two waves after me, six minutes later. As the horn went off and we took off up the street in Kalkaska, my fingers and toes immediately went numb from the breeze. A few blocks from the start, we headed into the woods, meaning a little slower speed and less wind. So, I spent the first few miles wishing my extremeties would warm up and I could enjoy the ride more. This finally happened around the 5-mile mark, so I was finally able to sette into a rhythm and enjoy the terrain and the scenery.

The temps were in the upper 20s to lower 30s, plus the area had gotten a couple inches of snow. You'd expect that the packed trails and frosty roots would be slippery in these conditions no matter what, but it seemed like I was slipping and sliding around even more than I should have been. Around the 7-mile mark, I got to one of the first steep, bumpy descents, and got through it pretty handily, but as the trail smoothed out, it took a sharp bend to the right on a particularly frozen patch. As I rounded this corner, my wheels slipped right out from under me, and I came down HARD and solid on my right side and right shoulder. I heard ominous crunching noises coming from my shoulder as this happened, and this being the same collar bone that I broke six years ago, of course the first thing I thought was, "Uh, oh, here we go again." I picked myself and my bike up, and as I brushed the show off of myself, my shoulder seemed to be able to move almost normally, although a bit stiffly. I didn't near any more crunching noises (or feel any searing jabs of pain), so I surmised I was able to keep riding. As I re-mounted and tried to start pedaling, I realized my chain had come off my chainrings, so I had to dismount again to put it back on before I could finally get going again.

The next couple of miles, I thought maybe I should let more air out of my tires to get more traction and prevent another slippery mishap. In the meantime, I also felt the urge to, er, eliminate some of the coffee and other pre-race hydration. I didn't want to lose any time by stopping for either task, though, and especially hoped that Brent would not make up the six-minute start difference and catch up. As I proceeded, even though my shoulder felt okay during mild sections, it was kind of sensitive on rough patches, especially on bumpy descents. So, I figured since I wasn't going to be breaking any records anyway, I may as well be comfortable for the remaining miles, so around mile 10, at the top of a heinous climb, I stepped off to the side of the trail. I emptied my bladder behind a tree, then tapped my valves a few times to let a few more pounds of air out of my tires. Just as I finished this, I saw Brent topping the climb! He asked, "Are you alright?" I said, "I think so," although not entirely convinced myself. Brent headed on forward, and I took off behind him, although I lost sight of him right away.

It was just before this that I also realized that my cyclocomputer was not working; it had barely gotten past reading 6 miles. I'm not sure if it was because of the number plate issue, my sensor had gotten knocked out of whack, or my battery was dying, but either way, I had no choice but to just ignore it and press on.

Around the 18-mile mark is the Williamsburg Road crossing, the only paved-road crossing on the course, and where many spectators gather to catch a view of mid-race action. I passed up Brent's wife Sarah alongside the climb leading up to the road crossing; I'm sure she knew I must not have been having a good day, being that she had seen Brent go by before me.
A couple of miles after the crossing, I was surprised to come upon Brent, crouched on one knee next to his bike on the side of the trail, kneeling almost as if in prayer. Now it was my turn to ask, "Are you alright?" He replied, "Cramps! How are you doing?" I said, "Not bad for maybe riding on a dislocated shoulder." We both caught our breath, and then continued, leap-frogging each other on-and-off for the remaining miles. It was around this time that I noticed my cyclocomputer had switched to "sleep" mode, completely out of commission.
The last seven or eight miles of the course have some of the steepest climbs, and this is where the miles really start to take their toll on you. However, when you get past these hills, you have a nice cruise for the last two or three miles to the finish, and when you start to hear the PA announcer during the last mile, you actually regret that your ride is over. I did NOT feel that way this year; I have never been so glad to know that I was almost finished.

As I approached the end of the fenced-in finish chute, I figured I may as well do an all-out sprint to save whatever seconds I could. Not even 50 feet from the finish line, I started passing this guy on the left, and I had plenty of room between him and the fence, until he started drifting to the left. I should have yelled or something, but I was tired, and why he felt the need to swerve over 50 feet before the line was beyond me, anyway. So, as he drifted over, my front wheel got tangled in his back wheel, and we both went down HARD. He yelled a few four-letter words of encouragement, then picked up his bike and ran across the finish line. I started to get back on my bike, but found that the crash was so hard that it turned my handlebars 90-degrees sideways. So, in a fitting end to a race fraught with disaster, I picked up my bike, and sensing a bruised left knee from the crash, literally limped across the finish line.
All I wanted to do was find a tree or bench or anything I could sit or lean on to take a load off, and when I finally did, a saw Brent and Sarah standing there behind me; he had crossed the line about a minute after me, and so ended up with an overall time about 5 minutes better.

We checked our official time on the results board a few minutes later, and I showed an official finish of 2 hours, 32 minutes, and 59 seconds--my worst Iceman time ever. However, I later found out I was 40th out of 90 in my age group, so I guess I can't complain still being in the top half.

I enjoyed some pizza and a couple locally-brewed beers at the finish expo, as well as sight-seeing and partaking of more local restaurants in Traverse City and around the area. My left knee that I landed on just before the finish line hurt like a son-of-a-gun all that evening, but has not made a peep since. My right shoulder has been getting progressively better each day; I almost have full range of motion back, and I don't think there's any permanent damage.

So, despite my disappointing race performance, the Iceman weekend never fails to disappoint for a fun road trip and a well-organized event. I can take away valuable lessons learned this year: be prepared, make smart choices, and don't let past successes lull you into over-confidence. If you're interested in checking out what the Iceman race is all about, registration will be open on March 1, 2011 at for the 2011 race. Sign up early, as it fills almost immediately, and for good reason.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like, uh, fun?!
    In any case, it makes for a GREAT story!