Sunday, August 11, 2013

Wildlife Prairie Park--Mountain Bike Race

Part of the North Loop of the Wildlife Prairie Park MTB trail

So I know I promised a RAGBRAI part two...and it's still in progress. Between packing for the big move, finishing up my work after six years here, and trying to do everything I love one last time before we leave, writing hasn't been much of a priority. It will happen, hopefully in the next day or so (before I forget all the cool stuff that happened!).

Monster at WPP parking lot, practice day!
Anyway, today you'll have to settle for a post on competitive mountain biking, a genre of cycling as addicting as it is challenging. Last September (on my birthday!) I competed in my first race, finishing fifth in my division. This was only my fourth time on a mountain bike (and second time on MY mountain bike) so I was beyond pleased with how the race went. This spawned even more cravings for trips to the woods and I couldn't get enough of the adrenaline rush that comes with off-road adventures! I had grand plans to train, train, train and do more races as soon as the next season started.

As usual, life gets in the way and I have not raced since then. I wanted to focus on building my bike-handling and fully internalizing the skills we drilled at Ray's back in March, and was bound and determined to finally do my first triathlon. Though we have a terrific race series run by the Peoria Area Mountain Bike Association here in Central IL, I got so busy training for the triathlon and RAGBRAI that Monster the Mountain Bike languished in the garage rather than tearing it up out on the trails. It got to the point I felt guilty every time I went into the garage and grabbed the Civia or the Dolce. I apologized many times to poor Monster, promising that her turn to race again would come "soon."

"Soon" happened sooner than I had anticipated. I hadn't even been considering today's race until an old achilles tendonitis issue returned, ten years after the first (and last) occurrence. Despite careful run training all summer and obsessive shoe fittings, the second I started a marathon training plan Mr. Achilles point-blank made his feelings known. Running is completely off the table for quite a while, which means no duathlon next weekend and no triathlon in September. On a lark I took a peek at the mountain bike racing schedule and saw that one of my favorite local trails, Wildlife Prairie Park (WPP), planned to host a race on August 11. WPP is a fun course with a few challenges, though I definitely prefer the rockiness of these trails to the stupid skinny bridges on my home course :). I decided to do a practice run or two and if they went well, I would race.

Monster, ready to race!
I don't mind it one bit when life hands me quite a few lemons--lemonade is one of my favorite drinks and I always have a ton of ingredients on hand to make it even better. While I am bummed about missing out on the multi-sport races I had planned, I honestly find mountain biking so much more fun! Since riding on flat pedals doesn't seem to affect my tendon I just switched my training focus from running to off-road biking, which is not a bad thing at all. I drove out to the course Wednesday for a slow ride around the race loop to make sure it was within my ability level. Thing went well, so I went back Thursday to practice the trickier spots and strategize, and on Friday night signed up for the race.

Today was the big day, and we couldn't have asked for nicer weather or better trail conditions. After practicing the course a few times, I knew there were a few things in my favor as a road cyclist, namely quite a few flat, open places where I could sprint and quite a bit of climbing once we hit the woods. Of course, there were a few things that would be difficult as a relatively new cross-country rider, namely some of the ├╝ber-tight turns and the rocky terrain. The wooded singletrack and more technical portion of the course didn't start for at least a mile, so my strategy was to push hard through the relatively flat part, where I could pass people easily. I wanted to have a good position once we hit the woods, where it was much harder to get around people. Also, the north loop starts with a ton of climbing, and I wanted to position myself ahead of the folks who weren't as strong on the hills. Nothing kills momentum like having the rider in front of you randomly jump off his or her bike, and sprinting while pushing a bike up a trail definitely didn't make the cut of approved exercise for my type of tendonitis.

Representing the BCF race team! Second place!
I did not line up in the best position, though I pushed hard in my opening sprint and ended up near the front. Only one woman from my division got to the woods ahead of me, and there were two people between us. Sadly, one of those people rode much more slowly through the technical stuff and climbs than I wanted to, but was not so nice about letting me pass. I could not safely get around him until halfway through the race, when we sprinted across a field to get to the southern part of the woods, but after that I was able to really push my pace and quickly picked off a few other people, catching up to some of the slower men's novice riders in the process.

I really busted my rear trying to catch the woman in front of me, though I never saw her. I had a feeling she was far enough ahead by that point that my chances were slim. But hey, in mountain biking things can turn in a heartbeat if you put your foot in the wrong place (ask me about falling down a mini-ravine at Comlara a few weeks ago...), pick the wrong line, or flat a tire so I wasn't about to give up the chase. Plus I really wanted one of those cool Illinois-shaped medals, so tried to put as much distance as I could between me whoever was behind me. I easily got through a few difficult sections that had
Me and Jane, post-race
given me problems in practice (THANK YOU Ray's Mountain Bike Women's Day--the skills I learned in intermediate ladders made this ride so much easier!) and overall felt great about my ride! I came in second in the women's novice division, finishing the course in under 50 minutes and with tons of energy in the tank at the end. Oh, and I won a raffle prize too--a tube that is the correct size for Monster's sizeable tires :). My goal had been to finish in under an hour, so I definitely did not expect such a good time, especially with all the lollygagging I ended up doing on the first half of the race waiting for my chance to pass!

My Bloomington Cycle teammate, Jane, did great today too, finishing fifth despite being in the middle of a detox and lacking the coffee advantage I enjoyed :). I'm really going to miss riding with this one!

The kids race between Novice and Expert/Sport events
After the novice events ended, we got to witness of my FAVORITE races--the children's race. All these kids on tiny little bikes (some with training wheels!!) line up at the start and do a small loop. Everyone gets a medal and a beanie baby, and everyone gets to stand on the podium for pictures. The excitement, grins, and love of cycling are apparent in each kids face; watching this event is always worth it!

The sad part of today is that it is probably my last mountain bike adventure in central IL, at least for awhile. Next Saturday we unpack in Ohio and start a new life there. I've already made friends with a few Oberlin-area cyclists and can't wait to explore the trails in their area. It looks like they host some nice clinics and races, AND we will be close enough to Ray's in Cleveland to possibly warrant season passes for the winter. I will desperately miss the ladies here, and am incredibly thankful to Lori for getting me started (and justifying my purchase of yet another bike haha). The first couple of times we rode, I took everything she said to heart and practiced them on my hour-plus of commuting every day. From foot position to body weight, from cornering to shifting, I turned every ride to work into practicing the suggestions Lori gave. If there's anything I've taken away from a lifetime of piano study, it's that the best way to improve technique quickly is to incorporate it into EVERYTHING you do. If you get the chance to try one of her newbie rides (often an offshoot of the Comlara Off-Road Biking Association No One Left Behind rides on Mondays), take advantage of it. You won't regret it, and that's a guarantee!

I gave her jewelry, I hope Monster forgives me for a season of racing neglect!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

RAGBRAI Part 1--Council Bluffs to Des Moines

Team Rainbowfish (or whatever...we still don't have a name) finishing RAGBRAI 2013

Yesterday it all ended. I stood with my team on the banks of the Mississippi river, waiting in a huge line of brightly-clad cyclists for the chance to dip our front tires into the water. As always, finishing RAGBRAI was accompanied by a wild mix of feelings, from happiness at the prospect of seeing John and my beloved doggies, sadness that the adventure flew by so quickly and I never got my derby pie, hunger because I had burned off my delicious brisket sandwich from thirty miles ago, regret that I didn't take more photographs, and pride at having completed every last mile, including the optional ones. All in all, we couldn't have asked for a better year for this ride. Because there is no way to cover all of RAGBRAI in one blog post without it getting terribly unwieldy, I'm going to split this into two.
Entering Iowa!

My adventure started on Friday, July 19. Because the rest of my team is based out of the Chicago suburbs, it was easier for me to grab a spot on Brancel Charters and have them transport my self and my bike to Council Bluffs. John drove me to Fort Madison (home of the Bloodhounds, and our ending town) so I could deliver Dolce to the movers, and I pitched camp for the night at the high school. I took him out to dinner before he left, and the only place we could find food was a fascinating little restaurant called "The Parthenon." I expected greek food, but it was a pizza and steak place with a gigantic salad bar. Surprisingly, the pizza we split wasn't bad at all, and I can be a total pizza snob!

The next day we caught the charter bus at 7:30 am and started the trek across the state. We arrived in Council Bluffs mid-afternoon, and I was thrilled to see that that entire lanes of the road were blocked off for bicycle use only. In some ways, RAGBRAI spoils those of us used to fighting for our safe use of the roadways. Sure, it took FOREVER to get the bus to the campsite on our charter bus, but it was so cool seeing some of the over-ten-thousand RAGBRAI participants zipping around town.

The expo is a bit overwhelming, but completely awesome if you're into cycling. There were tons of vendors there peddling everything from chamois lubricant to Big Wheels for adults! My team took our coupons to the Des Moines Register tent to claim our official event patches and we wandered around for awhile. That night we were fortunate enough to have a wonderful home stay in Omaha, Nebraska, so we made our way west for the night. Bonus? I got to mark another state of my map as I'd never been to Nebraska before that!

I'm not sure how well anyone slept that first night--I know I was a wee bit overexcited! The next morning we packed up, said our thanks, and headed to the Omaha riverfront. Let me tell you, I had NO IDEA that there were such amazing bike paths leading from Nebraska to Iowa. We crossed an absolutely stunning bicycle/pedestrian bridge to get to the dip site and I had to tamp down my feelings of extreme jealousy that we don't have things quite that awesome in central Illinois :). There were a few issues that first morning--Carolyn's tubes have extremely short little valves, so our air pump was not happy about latching on. My brake cables decided to be stupid, so I had the hardest time with my front tire, and I think we all ended up with bike chain tattoos before we even got in the saddle! Regardless, it was a beautiful morning for a ride, so we goofed around for a bit before heading out onto the official route.
Early morning frivolity in Omaha

Day one was Council Bluffs to Harlan. They didn't hold back with the first day, there were quite a few hills and we definitely got our muscles moving! My mission for day one was to find and devour a walking taco--something we successfully accomplished in Shelby. For the uninitiated, a walking taco is a dorito bag of deliciousness (and something I would probably never eat outside of RAGBRAI)! Basically, they take a single-serving bag of cheese doritos, crunch it up so the chips are in small pieces, add a scoop of taco meat, salsa, sour cream, cheese, and jalapenos, and VOILA! The lucky RAGBRAI rider has a tasty, portable meal. It's definitely something not-to-be-missed, though it would be great if some vendor offered a vegetarian option for the non-meat-eaters on the ride. Other highlights of day one included meeting Sasquatch and finding the Pink Floyd team bus.

That night we were lucky to have a home stay in Carroll, Iowa. We ate VERY well that night, as our wonderful hosts went all-out with grilled items, delicious side dishes, and an amazing oreo dessert! We camped out in the basement, sleeping off all the food and exercise in preparation for the next day, the biggest and most difficult of the week.

Dip, baby, dip!
Day two linked Harlan and Perry, and offered the optional Karras Loop to those interested in completing a century ride (100 miles). Last year it was so stinking hot and with such horrible headwinds that we opted to skip the loop, though honestly I was really sad about not doing it. There was no way I was missing it this year, even if we had a couple beastly hills to conquer. We pedaled up a fun little blood-pressure-raiser called "Creamery Hill" to start the loop, then in two miles we arrived in Elk Horn, a small Dutch town with a lovely museum. There we claimed our special Karras Loop patches, and were surprised that Mr. Karras himself was there! Of course, that was a photo op we couldn't turn down! The RAGBRAI guide book indicated that we would be climbing close to 6500 feet over the course of the day, and while my GPS showed a smaller number we did spend a good chunk of the century dealing with hills. I happen to enjoy the challenge of climbing, so I was in heaven. I have a feeling some other RAGBRAI participants would describe the experience differently. The truly challenging part was that the bulk of the ascent happened before Springbrook State Park, and after Mockingbird Hill things flattened out drastically. There were some issues with road quality on this leg, however, and the cracks in the road around Yale caused several serious accidents according to the news. We avoided another night of camping by staying with teammates Dave and Cindy, and it was great having a house and some healthy food after the hard ride. We also managed to avoid the storm that plagued campers that night, which is good considering my work to seal seams and waterproof my tent wasn't as effective as I had hoped, but that's a story for RAGBRAI part two.
Mr. Karras, second from the right

Day three took us from Perry to Des Moines, and it was a cakewalk compared to the day before. Hilariously enough, it was also the day I had the slowest average speed. Apparently without hills to fight, I get drastically slower. And I mean drastically! This was a day that will live on in RAGBRAI infamy--not only did we get to eat deep-fried homemade pie (mine was caramel-apple with pecan, and it was amazing) but Dallas Center hosted midget wrestling (sorry, I know that's not PC, but that's exactly how it was billed!). My team also got our traditional temporary tattoos that day. Carolyn the triathlete chose swim-bike-run, Doug got a really awesome bike, Cindy's was a beautiful bike chain naturally I went with the happy dinosaur. And naturally half of him disappeared in the next
Day Three--College Jersey Day
48 hours. Now I have a dinosaur tush that won't scrub off of my leg, no matter what I put on it. I guess I'm glad it's unseasonably chilly, because I may end up having to wear pants all week to cover up the brontosaurus derriere!

Our day culminated with some mild headwinds on the last stretch to the capital, and while I have no issue with "central Illinois hills" I was surprised at how many people were whining about the wind. I ended up pulling a small group of men through the stretch of crummy roads and windy conditions. The guys displayed some poor rider etiquette, though--when I asked them to take a turn at the front, they refused. Not nice, boys!

Day three was also RAGBRAI college jersey day, so we saw an immense amount of heckling between the Iowa Hawkeyes alumni and those who attended Iowa State.  I got to wear my beautiful new Illinois Wesleyan Titan jersey and had quite a few people pull up to talk about my alma mater over the course of the ride. The jersey was a year in the making, but worth the wait! If you are affiliated with IWU, talk to the bookstore about getting your own Titan cycling top! Many colleges were represented, and I saw quite a few Indiana University, University of Kentucky, Simpson College, and University of Minnesota alumni representing their schools! I would love to see more IWU Titans showcasing our pride at a future RAGBRAI!

Carolyn and Cindy on the trail
Because we didn't get enough riding on the Perry to Des Moines route, Carolyn, Cindy, and I ventured out to the High Trestle Trail in Madrid, Iowa. We were staying with Cindy and Dave that evening as well and the trail goes right through their backyard! The trail is beautiful, especially the long bridge feature. We stopped to take quite a few photos from both the bridge and the observation tower. I guess many other RAGBRAI riders had the same idea to come to Madrid that evening, because the bicycling bar on the trail (the Flat Tire Lounge) was absolutely hopping with RAGBRAI participants wearing kilts and having a great time! We stopped in for a quick visit and again, I had to tamp down my jealousy that we didn't have a bicyclist bar and grill on Constitution Trail :).  When I heard they have several more near Madrid that cater to the two-wheeled crowd, I decided we needed to go back to Iowa some other time of year and explore all that the area has to offer with bike amenities.
Flat Tire Lounge--Crazy times at RAGBRAI

The evening of day three was the last we spent in a house. We prepared our bags for the official Des Moines Register semi transport, washed our clothing so we wouldn't be totally disgusting the rest of the week, and went into day four ready to experience the "real" RAGBRAI. We checked out the weather forecast and decided to jettison some of the hot-weather camping items that were not going to be necessary with lows in the low '50s for the rest of the week. I'm glad we did, because removing the fan and extra batteries made my bag much more manageable.

Next entry--RAGBRAI part 2: Des Moines to Fort Madison and home again.

Thursday, July 18, 2013


Up at 7am to seal & waterproof tent!
In typical Sara fashion, I got diagnosed with strep throat yesterday (yup, two days before leaving for Iowa!), so not much got done as I was feeling absolutely horrible. The antibiotics have kicked in, so today has been scramble mode. Not only did I have to work a full day, but I also had to check the tent, seal the seams, waterproof it, pick up Dolce from the shop, and pack everything.It's been a bit crazy, and now I have one more thing to pack--Amoxicillin.

The most important tip for being ready for RAGBRAI? Make sure your bike is in the best shape possible. After the Evergreen Triathlon on Saturday I went straight to Bloomington Cycle and dropped off the bike, instructing them to check the tires, brakes, chain, and not be afraid to fix ANYTHING that even seems like it might act up. While there are bike shops and repair options on the ride, no one wants to take 2-3 hours out of their day to get a bike fixed...and the prices are really high to boot!

 The guys at the shop were amazing as always, and called yesterday to say they'd recommend replacing the tires and brake pads. I use Continental Gatorskin tires, which are puncture-resistant and handmade in Germany (my favorite country to visit!) and highly recommend them for rides like this. When I went in to pick up the bike today, I grabbed two spare tubes as well. I will be taking four with me this summer, and while I don't expect to need them at all it's good insurance!

So Dolce is ready to go! Now I have to worry about what to carry on the bike each day. A couple of things are no-brainers. My northern European heritage pretty much requires a constant devotion to sunblock, so my saddle bags will carry spare tubes, CO2 cartridges, SPF 50 sunblock for my body, Clinique city block SPF 40 for my face (another product I whole-heartedly recommend, whether you're a guy or gal), an individual-sized handi-wipe, feminine hygeine products, a small pack of chamois butter (on the long days), the antibiotics (it'll be too hot for them everywhere else, they'll have to ride with me across Iowa) and my beloved shot bloks. My bento box will carry my phone (I turn off the cellular service for much of the ride, as we can't get service most of the time anyway and I really just use it for taking pictures), SPF lip gloss, and anything fun I pick up on the ride. I usually carry my money and ID in a ziplock bag in my bike jersey pockets.

Dolce has a bell now!
This year I asked the guys to put a bell on my road bike. Last year I lost my voice the first couple of days as I politely yelled "On your left" to pass people, and I was super-jealous of team leader Jeff who had a bell on his bike. It took some finagling, but Chris Curran is a genius and found the perfect place for it! Now I can just merrily ding as I pass rather than scream at people, a bonus with the strep throat diagnosis.

The most important thing you carry on your bike? It's no question in this kind of weather: hydration. I have two bottle holders on my bike, and will be taking my polar ice bottle for water and one of my purist bottles for instant coffee (first thing in the AM) and my electrolyte fizz (when I finish off my coffee). Hey, caffeine is important and the awesome thing about the purist bottles is they don't retain flavors at all. Seriously, a quick rinse and it's ready for mango fizz tablets, no nasty aftertaste!

This year we are using the RAGBRAI truck for toting our luggage from town to town, and they have some pretty strict restrictions on what you can bring. You are allowed one bag, under 50 pounds, and you can strap one thing (like a tent or sleeping bag) to it. Last year I bought a bag at the last minute from Dick's Sporting Goods, and it ended up being way too big and horribly difficult to carry. I regretted not spending a bit more money to get something that was a backpack. When I got home from Iowa, I started stalking Steep and Cheap looking for a great deal on a nicer bag. With a year to wait, I had plenty of time to find the perfect tote. I'm not the strongest person in the world, so something that could be worn as a backpack was ideal! I ended up with a great bag from Stoic that is waterproof and can be worn on the back. It's also smaller, so I really can't overpack!
My Stoic waterproof tote.

For camping, I have a small tent from Wenzel that works out well, though I stink at putting it up. One piece of absolutely essential gear for RAGBRAI is an O2 cool fan (the best price I've found on them is at Wal-Mart). Even in last year's terrible, horrible heat, I actually got a bit chilly at night when I was running this fan. I bought and extra pack of D batteries to take with me, as the estimated run time would not quite get me through the week. Last year I didn't need them, but I don't want to be scrambling around rural Iowa trying to find 8 of these things!

Last year I took a small air mattress, but it was a pain in the rear end, ESPECIALLY for breaking camp...I ended up just sleeping on the tent floor because dealing with it was so annoying. This year I just got a cheap foam pad to put under my sleeping bag. Speaking of sleeping bags, I have a warm-weather Coleman bag in the shorter size, but I also take a set of travel sheets. They roll up in the bag without taking up extra room and are the perfect amount of cover for the really hot nights.

As for attire, I read so many lists last year where people were advocating taking only one pair of cycling shorts and one top and hand washing them every couple of days. I totally understand the desire to be an absolute minimalist, but I guess I'm a bit of a
Cycling clothes, pre-bagging
princess because there is NO WAY I could fathom pulling on nasty clothes from the day before. What if you wash them, but it rains all night? Or what if you only have one extra pair of shorts, wash them, it rains all night, and you have to shove damp clothing into a bag and let it sit on a semi in late July for the entire day? Yuck! Since I have enough room I pack enough to avoid having to handwash. We are lucky enough to have a well-placed home stay with laundry, so I can get by with 4 sets of bike clothing this year.

Because of the possibility of our luggage sitting in the rain, I pack each day's outfit (jersey, shorts, socks, sports bra, hair ties, and Buff) into a gallon-sized ziploc bag. I will be taking three sets of casual clothing for post-riding and sticking
Cycling clothes, in a gallon bag
a comfy outfit in the car for when John comes to pick me up. These also get packed in individual ziploc bags. I pack a separate ziploc with all my nutrition for the week (including 7 packets of Starbucks Iced Via, caramel flavored, so I'm not a total you-know-what in the AM), and then bring along a book and a sock to knit.

Other essentials....chamois butter, Gold Bond powder (it helps with the inevitable "diaper rash" you get from being sweaty all day in the the bike shorts), flashlight, tent light, and if this applies to you, tampons. Most of the lists I read last year were written by men and this was a token "for women" thing they threw in at the bottom of their items. Don't be dumb like I was last year, those things are FREAKING expensive when you have to purchase them in rural Iowa. Seriously, we're talking half of your daily food budget expensive. I almost cried when they told me there was no place to buy them as a single, so ended up having to buy a box of 24 and hauling the bulk of them 50+ miles to our campsite. Save yourself the cash and the hassle and just put one in your saddlebag if there is even the remotest possibility that it will be an issue.

Coffee, sweet instant coffee....
Oh, and don't forget your chargers! We had no problems finding places to charge phones and Garmins last year. I just take one adaptor and the USB cords for the iPhone and Garmin respectively.. The phone will need charged every day, but the Garmin probably only needs a feed once or twice during the week.

If you'd like to see my complete packing list, check it out on google documents. Compared to many lists it does seem like a lot, but it all fits in a bag I can easily carry and weighs well under 50 pounds. You may be able to get by with fewer things, and if you can way to go!

Hope to see you in Iowa next week, and if you need some coffee in the morning....ask someone else :).

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


Anamosa had a prison theme
It's that time of year again--the heat is in the 90's, the humidity is intense, so naturally I (along with 10,000+ other cycling enthusiasts) have signed on to ride my bike across the great state of Iowa as part of the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, commonly known as RAGBRAI.

2012 was my first year participating in the event, and it was pretty much a trial by fire (no, really!). According to many sources, it was the hottest RAGBRAI on record. As we pedaled, people with fancier bike computers than mine kept up a running lament of the on-road temperatures, which reached between 115 and 120 degrees during the first half of the week. I had been initially sad that my Garmin had broken before the event, but not knowing the stats was probably best for me :).  My team tried keeping track of how much liquid we took in on a typical day, and the amounts were quite ridiculous--gallons (seriously). Despite the unrelenting heat, we had a great time and were eager to ride again this summer.

Batman on his BatBike
I know that riding your bike 60-100 miles per day in late July doesn't sound like an amazing way to spend a week, but it really is a great experience. Seeing the massive crowds of cyclists stretching as far as you can see, both in front and behind, is inspiring. The food is terrific, meeting new people who share your common interest is fun, and my personal favorite part is stopping in the small rural towns and knowing that we are helping fund so many great projects in areas that truly need the influx of cash. Last year we talked to members of a small-town school wrestling team that had been safe from cuts for over five years because of the money they raised on the day RAGBRAI came through their town. As someone who grew up in a small, non-affluent rural school district, I love being able to contribute in a small way to other kids who face having their favorite programs cut because of lack of funds.Knowing that the money I paid for a shower and a spaghetti dinner is helping the music program stay alive makes the entire experience even better!

Mr. Porkchop
This year the route is shorter and more southern than last year, though I've heard rumors of some challenging climbs. My team is shooting to do the Karras Loop on Monday, which is an optional add-on that turns an 84 mile day into a century day (close to 110 miles, I believe!). Aside from that, so far most of what we've discussed revolves around food. Like I said earlier, the food is really good (and tastes even better when you've ridden many miles in the heat!). Some favorites from last year were Mr. Porkchop, who drives a bus that looks like a pig, walking tacos, and who can ever forget bacon-on-a-stick? Speaking of sticks, we saw pretty much everything you could put on a stick getting sold, including pickles, eggs, dutch babies (some sort of pastry), meat of all varieties, veggies, the list goes on and on!

We're all getting excited about the event, which starts Sunday. I'm taking a charter bus across the state (so John doesn't have to drive me all the way to western Iowa), so my adventure starts on Friday. Last year I did the same thing, using Brancel Charters to get my bike and my self across the
I LOVE supporting small towns!
state, but they require a Friday drop-off for a Saturday trip, so that means an extra night of camping. Dolce went straight to Bloomington Cycle after the triathlon Saturday to make sure that she's in as good shape as possible, so my training is essentially done. The next few days involve packing, waterproofing my tent,  and buying a couple of small things like batteries and more sunblock. In the next day or so I will share my packing list, streamlined from last year as I now know exactly what I will need...and am limited in what I can bring because we are using the RAGBRAI semi to carry our baggage for us this year, and they have restrictions on size and weight. This week is all about RAGBRAI, and I hope to be somewhat helpful for those of you planning your first Iowa adventure, whether it's this year or in the future. Rider on!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

My First Triathlon-Evergreen Lake 2013

Waiting for the swim to start--Comlara Park, Evergreen Lake
Today was one of those events that has been in the making for about a year--my first triathlon. You can file that under "things I never thought I'd actually do." As of summer 2012 I couldn't actually swim (outside of the horrible dog paddle hybrid I came up with to pass my SCUBA requirement...and it was so bad my teacher actually told me it was one of the worst cases of "passing" he'd ever seen!), my running was definitively sub-par, and the bulk of my athletic pursuits were social road rides and biking around town.

As a member of the Spokeswomen, however, I couldn't help but feel drawn to the idea of a triathlon every time my fellow club members talked about their swim-bike-run experiences. My fantasy of actually being one of those amazing people who can complete a tri became more and more real as my club friends guided me towards training resources and shared stories of how they got started. I can definitively say that if it hadn't been for this amazing group out of Bloomington Cycle and Fitness, I would never have believed I'd be writing this blog entry about finishing a triathlon!

The stars aligned last summer, when my workplace started offering a six-week long fitness class on swimming. It was free for employees, even we bottom-of-the-barrel adjuncts, so I took full advantage. At first, learning the strokes was discouraging--I seriously could swim only twenty-five yards at a time without feeling like I was going to suffocate, and my breaststroke led the lifeguards to believe I was drowning. I'm never one to back down, so I started hitting the pool almost every day, challenging myself each day to add a little more distance before stopping. My hand/eye/breath/leg coordination improved, and by the end of the class I could do a couple of hundred yards, slowly, without stopping.

Fast forward to this year, when I decided just to sign up for the Evergreen Triathlon-sprint distance (500 meter swim/25 mile bike/5K run) and see what happened. I did my best trying to figure out a good training plan, adjusting quite a bit after the Dri-Shark Duathlon, but was not sure what today would be like.

Me (pink cap, BCF kit), getting nervous waiting to swim!
I didn't expect was that the hardest part was waiting to get into the lake. I can't tell you how many people had stories about panicking at their first triathlon, freaking out about not being able to see the bottom of the lake, etc. When folks found out I was doing my first event, almost all of them guaranteed it would be the same for me. This made the decision to ask for a pink cap (which signals my nervousness/weakness in the water) a no-brainer, but the stories were all going through my head as I stood at the lakeside, waiting for my turn to get into the water. I was apprehensive when they called the light blue wave (women's sprint distance athletes) to the water.

I had it in my head that I was probably the weakest swimmer there, since I was so new to the sport and hadn't done the open-water swims I probably should have done. I made sure I stayed in the very back of my pack so I wouldn't inhibit the others. Next time I will avoid doing this--I guess I'm stronger than I thought, and used a lot of energy swerving through the water to pass people. I did resort to side-stroke a couple of times when I was getting kicked in the face, but I did most of the 500 meter swim in freestyle. Several nice
gentlemen helped me out of the water, and even though I was panting horribly I managed to get my legs moving and run to the transition area.

My first transition wasn't too bad, considering I don't have actual triathlon gear and sat my rear end on the ground to put on my socks, shoes, and adjust my hair (yeah, yeah, transition time, whatever. It was worth it.). I downed a shot block, some water, grabbed my helmet and beloved Dolce, and took off running for the bike portion.

The only strategy I had for today was to gun it on the bike and down a shot block every five miles. I've been training really hard to improve my speed and ability to eat on the bike, and it paid off. My goal was to average 20 mph over the 25 mile course...and I was close at 19.9 mph. I believe I would have hit my goal if I hadn't been indecisive about whether or not to pass a non-race-vehicle truck that was toodling along at 15 mph for about a half mile (I opted not to, as the locals here are unpredictable when it comes to cyclists, and I wasn't sure what the racing rules were on passing vehicles). The course was great, and it was fun racing over some familiar terrain. The route is on my regular stomping grounds, so it was really helpful knowing when to save energy for upcoming hills, as I knew that the climbs were my best chance of zipping around people.

It was also great seeing familiar faces volunteering at the turns and crossroads! I saw people I mountain bike with, ladies from the Spokeswomen and McLean County Wheelers, and other random folks I know from around town. The volunteers at this event were awesome, and they definitely deserve a lot of credit for keeping things running smoothly!

The bike course was over all too soon, and I returned to the transition area for the 3.1 mile run. I got some nifty new lace locks after the duathlon debacle with shoelaces, and saved a ton of time just yanking my kicks onto my feet. I did take the time to eat another shot block and chug some water, and as I had only one shot block left decided to bring it with me. This, my friends, was a really stupid thing to do. I didn't even bring the wrapper, just the gooey gummy square in my hand because I didn't want to make the pockets of my tri-top sticky. Yup, makes total sense. About a quarter of a mile in I realized the idiocy of the plan, so, still worried about making my pockets all nasty, I just shoved it into my mouth...and didn't finish eating it until after mile 3. Brilliant, and John captured all this with his photo (I'm trying to give him a thumbs-up with my left hand while madly clutching my gummy in the other).

My run was slow, but I felt good through all of it and didn't walk at all (my secondary goal). The swim combined with a hard bike really took a toll on my breathing, so while I tried to push the pace a couple of times I just didn't have it in me. It was great having John and other friends out there cheering me on! I didn't finish as strongly as I had hoped, so when I went to get my official times I was initially confused to see I had finished fourth in my age group--that's in the medals! I asked the woman to verify that I had typed in the right race number, and she pointed to my name at the top of the sticker. I was beyond shocked and really happy to have my name called at the awards ceremony and collect my really awesome medal for fourth place.

All in all, today was an awesome experience. I am already scoping out clinics and coaches in Ohio (where we are moving next month!), as well as more events in the Lake Erie area. They say your first triathlon gets you hooked...and that may very well be true in my case! I'm definitely looking forward to getting some help with my swimming/running and trying this all again in a couple of months!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Pedaling for Kicks!

Again, I have turned into a giant blogging slacker. I always think I'm going to have SO MUCH TIME in the summer, but then get in a horrible habit of promising it all away for things that won't fit in the school year schedule.

First year of PFK, my Trek at the rest stop
About a week and a half ago John and I rode one of my very favorite organized rides in central Illinois, Pedaling for Kicks (PfK), hosted by the Fellowship of Christian Farmers. It's an annual event held right here in the Bloomington-Normal area with a start/finish at East White Oak Bible Church. Every year these folks put on an excellent ride with great organization, well-placed rest stops, a variety of routes for all levels of riders, and good food! I've done this ride for several years, starting in the months before I finally broke down and bought a road bike (I did 25 miles that year on my old Trek hybrid) and completing the metric century in 2012. This year's big event was all about John, as he completed his first metric century! It was a memorable ride for so many reasons!

Dolce and John's vintage Raleigh
First off, I almost couldn't ride. The night before I was involved in a pretty nasty spill on a rainy Spokeswoman Friday Night ride. A combination of hitting the pavement at 18 mph and getting run over by the poor woman behind me left me feeling kind of crummy the next morning. I knew the best thing I could do was get back on the bike and set out with the intention of riding a shorter ride and turning around if it wasn't going to be possible. Seeing as I couldn't even put air into my own tires because of the bruised ribs, I wasn't optimistic, but John and I have ridden this ride for so many years I wanted to try it out. Surprisingly, nothing really bothered me while riding, aside from trying to mount/dismount from the right.

We got started a bit later than I prefer, and while the heat was no issue this year (last year the temperature exceeded the number of kilometers we rode, which is never a good sign!) our departure time meant we had to deal with rain. I'm not talking about just a sprinkle or two, we were riding through some pretty heavy downpours! It was bad enough that I was cold, shivering with goosebumps through the bulk of our 62 miles. It was worth it, though! Riding in this area often means mile after mile of straight, flat roads and being surrounded
Lake Bloomington-Inner Loop
by crops, which is nice on some levels but can get visually boring after awhile. Pedaling for Kicks does a great job choosing routes, and the roads they utilize keep things interesting. One of my favorite parts this year was riding the "Inner Loop" at Lake Bloomington. I'd heard people talk about it before, but never found it myself. Now I regret not making the effort--it is a really lovely place to ride!

The first rest stop happened about 15 miles in, and we really needed it. We'd already ridden through one downpour and were definitely ready for a snack. They always do a great job providing a variety of foods for hungry athletes, and I appreciate having peanut butter and trail mix at my disposal. This year I noticed
Bonus options at food stops
that sunblock and anti-Monkey Butt powder were also provided; it was a nice touch :). We hung out for a little bit, chatting with some folks from Springfield who were admiring my nasty road rash and bruises, and checking out the radar. Seeing that we couldn't avoid the deluge, we headed out, planning to make our final decision about distance when we got to the Evergreen stop and checked the radar again.

Interstate Crossing
PfK leads you through Kappa, IL before turning towards Comlara Park. This road has a few nice hills on it near a lovely golf course, culminating in a very slow rise up to cross interstate 39. I love seeing how fast I can push myself up this part of the route, so I surged ahead planning to get a few photos from the top. It was
amazing how good I felt considering the fall from 13 hours before!

John riding up from Kappa, IL

At the Evergreen Lake stop, I had my first watermelon of the year. I'm always grateful that the organizers of this ride provide slightly different options at the food stops. It's nice to have variety! As we were munching and looking at the maps and the radar, we decided not to head out to Congerville. Things looked really nasty on the weather app and after my spill in the rain the night before, I was wary of charging down the giant hills in wet conditions. We decided to do the 44 mile ride instead, so after water bottles were refilled and snacks were gone we headed out, trying to beat the scary red blob on the radar screen.

Drenched in Hudson, IL
This portion of the ride included a couple of fun hills, a few curves, and some lovely houses. I was familar with the road from my own training rides, but had fun pointing out my favorite landmarks along the way to John, who doesn't usually come out on the longer rides with me. The rain really started coming down on us as we turned onto road 1600 heading towards Hudson, IL. When we arrived at the fire department there, both of us were ready for another quick snack and some shelter from the cold water. The bonus at this rest stop was clean, nice,
Hanging out in the rain in Hudson, IL
indoor bathroom facilities. We waited out some of the downpour, chatting with some newbie cyclists out on one of their first organized rides.

I got antsy, so when things lightened up we headed out on the last stretch. John was commenting on how good he felt, so I tossed out the idea that we ride the 20 mile family route when we got back to the church so we could get a metric in after all. It looked like the sky was clearing up, so when we hit the church parking lot John decided he was up for it. After a quick drink we pedaled out. This might have been a huge mistake. About 7 miles into the route I started hearing thunder. Since we were almost to the turnaround point, we sprinted for the relative safety of the park, excited about grabbing some trail mix. Unfortunately when we got there the rain was torrential and the food was gone. I'm sure they didn't expect any family riders coming in at noon in that weather, so we sheltered there as I checked the weather. We ultimately decided to dart out when the rain lightened up, but things intensified again a few miles in. Last year PfK was the
A patch of blue sky at the end!
perfect training ride for RAGBRAI because conditions were pretty much exactly like they were the entire week in Iowa. All I could think about as I miserably pedaled forward, drenched to the core, was that this year's PfK better not be foreshadowing RAGBRAI 2013. If it is, however, this ride proved I can put my head down and survive it!

Things did clear up about 5 miles from the finish. John was on his last legs and I just wanted to be wearing socks that weren't sponges--we were both ready to be done and have some lunch! I pulled out the camera for a few more pictures when it wasn't in danger of water damage.

Annual Self-Portrait-PfK 2013
Overall, John was proud about his first 100K ride, and despite the weather we had a great time. I was a bit sad about not getting to train on the real metric route, but I'm convinced it was the smartest decision for us based on conditions. If you live in central IL, ride a bike, and haven't done PfK, I recommend putting it on your calendar for next year. I've seen every kind of bike imaginable on this ride, from mountain bikes, hybrids, and cruisers to top-of-the-line road bikes, tricycles, and recumbents. They include flat routes of 10 and 20 miles for families and those wanting an easy ride through the country, and then distances of 25, 37, 44, and 63 for those eager to tackle some bigger rides. The rest stops are always well-stocked, the SAG vehicles come by regularly, and the routes are really interesting for the area. John and I have always loved doing this ride, and it is hands-down my favorite organized ride in the area. Sadly, with our move coming up next month it will probably be the last time we do it, but we really appreciate this little gem of a bike event that happens right in our own back yard.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Bike Fitting

Wow, suddenly the duathlon is a few weeks past and I realize I haven't posted since! Seriously, sometimes time just seems to go way too fast.

Quite a bit has happened in the past three weeks on many fronts, from social rides to bike advocacy events! I'm also holed up with a keyboard and the Normal Parks and Recreation summer theater program for junior high/high school kids, so free time in the summer has proved to be as elusive as it is during the school year. The Secret Garden run one more weekend (June 20, 21, 22, 23 at 7:30 pm) and is actually a great place to bike to, so long as you don't want to lock your transportation :). There is no bike parking here, but you can keep your bike with you pretty easily. The show happens at the Connie Link Amphitheater, located at the "y" in Constitution Trail (south of Vernon, but right before the Camelback bridge). If you're out riding around and see us, stop by and say "hi"...I'm the girl in black fighting an eternal, unending battle with an old Clavinova that doesn't like to work hard. Oh, and the Civia sits right behind me :).

The McLean County Wheelers hosted their annual metric ride two weeks ago, and as usual it was a nice event! This is one of those organized rides that starts at one centralized location (Comlara Park), and has three twenty mile loops that start and end from the same location. The food, as always, was tasty and I rode with some terrific riders from the Bloomington Cycle race team. I rode out there and back, adding 30 miles onto my personal ride, but I only ended up doing two of the three loops, topping out at 72 miles for the day. I would have been happy to do the last loop, but have been having some pain in my right knee on longer rides and just haven't felt comfortable on the bike this season. For many people, knee pain is an offshoot of cadence, though that got ruled out pretty quickly with me as I tend to spin a bit faster than I should.  The knee issue started last fall, and as this is my third year doing more serious road riding I decided it was time to go into BCF for an updated bike fitting. I had a very basic fit when I first got the Dolce, but so much has changed with my riding in the last year alone!

If you haven't had a serious bike fitting, I totally recommend it. You will be amazed at the difference a few millimeters can make in your riding. Scott put me up on the trainer and within a couple of minutes noticed my knees were tracking inward toward my top tube as I pedaled, so some insert into the shoes will hopefully help keep thing straight. He also noticed that when I started pedaling really hard, my heels tend to drop quite a bit--I started paying attention to what happened in my knees when I did this, and the painful spot in my right knee  tightens up considerably. He lowered my seat a bit to help this issue.

Then the fun really started! He asked me if I'd like to try a more aggressive riding position, because with my flexibility it may actually help me be more comfortable. Plus if we have another "Yay, let's ride into a 30 mph headwind for 84 miles" day on RAGRAI next month the new position should help. Of course, I'm up for anything so we're trying it out! He took my handlebars off and adjusted them to a much lower place--nothing changed about the reach, just the position. I can't do a real ride until Friday or Saturday, but I can't wait to see how all this feels off the trainer on a more substantial ride. Dolce does look much more hardcore with her newer setup!

The last thing we talked about today were shoes. When I first started, I got SPDs with shoes that I could easily walk around in. This was perfect for a newbie, but now that we may need to start experimenting more with cleat placement because of the knee issues (coupled with me riding much harder than I did when I started), switching to a different pedal/cleat setup may be in order. One of the many things I love about BCF is that they don't push you into buying a ton of new stuff immediately--I'm going to ride a few good rides with the new bike positioning and see if this fixes the issue before spending money on completely re-doing my pedals/shoes/cleat combo. While I'm pretty sure I will upgrade anyway, it is nice to know that if the fit solves the issues I don't necessarily HAVE to buy a ton of new stuff.

I know many people, especially other women I talk to, feel that bike fitting are just for competitive riders. So not true! If you're having any pain issues or just want to be as efficient as possible, I totally recommend spending the money and getting assessed. It's cheaper than knee surgery, and being comfortable on your bike is not just important for the professionals. I definitely recommend making an appointment with Scott at Bloomington Cycle--you won't regret it, I promise! I'll post again next week after a few rides to let you know how these changes work in the real world!