The race started at 11pm in the swampy woods of the Francis Marion National Forest. The initial roads were fast and smooth, but by mile 20, the swamp waters had risen and we were forced to bushwhack through the underbrush to avoid the huge puddles that had taken over the path. Several brave souls rode straight though (of which I was not one); however, one of those was the first casualty of the race with a broken derailleur.
We continued on, dodging puddles and pot holes, on roads with delightful names such as Hell Hole A and Ostrich Run. I slipped on the edge of a puddle going through the first, luckily with no more than a dropped chain. On the second, I was less fortunate, sliding again in the mud, but landing on my right side in the puddle. Only my shoulder, hip, and part of my right hand got wet, but at 41 degrees, any wet body part was an unfortunate occurrence.
We reached the edge of the forest 73 miles in. It was 4:15 am, so still dark and getting colder. We passed quietly through the sleepy town of Bonneau and slipped up onto the access road that ran along the top of the dike that surrounded Lake Moultrie. The road was reasonably smooth and straight, but in the dark, the edges of the dike dropped off with no inkling of what lay below: lake water, swamp, pointy rocks, vicious wild animals, who knows? And it was the not knowing that was the most frightening part of the race.
We stayed primarily on the dike or nearby access roads for the next 75 miles, occasionally venturing out on the asphalt roads where we were given the instructions “to be careful because everyone on that road will be drunk and driving at 80 miles per hour.” (My husband found this very reassuring to hear.)
After a long stint of 9 miles on the dike riding directly into the brutal 11 mph winds coming from the NE off the lake, we descended back into Monck’s Corner, through town, back for one more miserable stint on the dike, then back into the forest for the most miserable 35 miles of riding in my life. After 13 grueling hours, I physically ended up back where I started, but I was a wiser and colder woman.
My primary nemesis was the brutal and unrelenting cold. It was 44 degrees when we started and dropped to about 38 degrees (with wind chill) by 7 am. It supposedly “warmed back up,” but the sun never stuck its head out from behind the clouds and the wind kept stripping every iota of heat from my body that it could.
The Other Militia Members
I had hoped to execute a plan that would allow me to start off slower and pass other riders as they tired. This worked in some cases, but I didn’t count on as many people coming as groups and working together. All of the other women worked in groups with at least two of more men. As I did not join the fast pack at the beginning, my option was to catch on to a group with two women and four men who seemed tolerant of my presence, but not exactly excited.
I stayed with them for about 30 miles, but when I stopped briefly to sprinkle the flowers, they did not wait. I caught up with two of the men who had dropped back a few miles later. They were much more friendly and told me how disappointing the weather was since they had come from Michigan for a warm vacation. We eventually caught back up to the others and continued riding as a group.
Once again, nature called, but only to me, so I fell behind again. This was right before Hell Hole A, so I lost more time fiddling with my chain. I’d given up on catching them, but was still riding pretty hard down Ostrich Run (which was the primary cause for my brief swim). Amazingly, as I reached the asphalt road, they came riding up behind me. It turns out, they had taken a wrong turn, so I was in front of them again.
We continued together through Bonneau, but they decided to stop at the convenience store and I kept going. My RideWithGPS lady gave me bad directions, so I too went off course. My Garmin complained which saved me from going off much, but I realized that the battery was dying. While I struggled to plug it into the external battery, the group rode by and disappeared into the night.
After that, I was basically on my own around the lake. I passed several riders, but none were part of this group. As I came up onto the nine mile stretch of the dike, I could see a group of four riders in the distance. I knew it had to be them. Annoyingly, once again, I had to pee. I also really needed to put on some chamois crème and pull out some food. I should have done this on the dike before they saw me, but instead I decided to try to ride past them decisively in hopes they were tired enough to let me go. This might have worked, except I got stuck at a traffic light and they caught up with me.
We ended up riding as a group for a while, but after coming through the town and back onto the last stretch of the dike, my decision not to eat caught up with me and once back on the wet gravel road, I could not hold onto them.
I continued on, somewhat forlorn and miserable. At that point, my lungs were hurting from breathing in the cold air. I was so ready to be done and I still had 35 more miles to go. As I struggled back through Bonneau, I heard a friendly voice behind me say hello. He asked if I’d like to join him (James) and his friend (Jordan). Being no fool, I accepted immediately, but warned them I would have to stop once we got back into the woods for the (now) desperately needed nature break. They graciously stopped as well, then we started back up for the last 20 miles of the race. They were friendly and chatty and kept my spirits up as our pace picked up… and picked up… and picked up some more. I glued myself to James’ wheel and just kept telling myself that the faster we went, the faster I’d be done. After about five miles, James looked back and said, “Where’s Jordan?”
I had no clue when he had dropped off, but I knew I couldn’t hold on at that pace. James apologized, but said he was just ready to be done and had to keep it up. I let him go and hoped Jordan would catch up to me and we at least could chat the rest of the ride. Sorry to say, I never did see him again (although annoyingly the race tracker says he came in ahead of me, which he did not).* I rode the last ten miles, alternating between whining to myself and trying to ride with one hand, so I could hold the other hand in my armpit. I spent some of the time wondering what the signs of hypothermia were and if I had gotten frostbite or damaged my lungs.
I was very thankful for my husband to be at the finish to catch me and hand me my puffy coat. I was disappointed to be the last female in (although I still beat a number of the men), but very happy I survived and accomplished my primary goal of gear testing for Unbound Gravel (previously known as Dirty Kanza).
The standard recommended range of carbohydrates per hour for endurance exercise is from 30 grams to 90 grams. I have never been able to get in 90 grams per hour without stomach distress, so I have settled on 60 grams as my best option for endurance events. I normally start with real food, then move to gummy candy, then to gels and liquid nutrition. Given my assumption that I would be out there for 12 hours at least, I packed 800 grams of carbs on my bike, a mix of Nutella sandwiches, dates stuffed with pecans, boiled potatoes, bags of Swedish Fish and gummy bears, a bottle of Boost, a bottle of beet juice, and six SiS gels. Some of this was in my pockets, some in my Camelbak and some in my bike bags. Had I been able to get this all down, I probably would have had a much better race.
Riding in the cold means expending more calories than I normally would in Florida. Although I was taking it relatively easy (my average heart rate was in low zone 2), there were times when I was working pretty hard and I needed the energy. I completely miscalculated how difficult it would be to handle all this food in the cold wearing full-fingered gloves. It also didn’t occur to me that the gummy candy which is delightfully soft and chewy in Florida would be rock hard in cold temperatures. I could not reach or handle a lot of the food while riding and even if I stopped, my fingers weren’t working well enough to get the packaging open. By the end of the race, I was struggling to hold the gels tight enough to rip the tops off with my teeth.
As a result, I ended up only taking in 300 grams of carbs (about 1,000 calories), less than half the amount I brought and 100 grams less than the low end of the recommended range. Additionally, I carried that extra weight and bulk for no reason. A better solution would have been more sandwiches because they were easy to handle and more liquid nutrition because I could get the bottles open with my teeth.
The other miscalculation that I made was in the amount of water I brought. My plan was to ride the whole race without making a store stop. I was able to achieve this, but instead of needing the 3,800 ml (128 oz) I brought on the bike, I finished the equivalent of 2.5 bottles (1250 ml or 42 oz). That means I carried over five extra pounds of water around the whole course.
Given the cold, I wasn’t sweating that much. I should have ingested more, but I definitely didn’t need that much. I had to pee three times during the ride including in the last 25 miles, so I wasn’t facing dehydration.
Speaking of over-packing, I had every piece of gear I could possibly need. I was set to plug or patch my tires or put in a new tube if needed. I could break my chain and convert my bike to a fix gear if necessary. I had a spare derailleur hanger should that bend or break. I had extra chain lube, a hand pump, two CO2 canisters, extra plugs, a multi-tool, a spare light, a spare battery for my phone (in addition to the one for my lights and Garmin). Seriously, I looked like I was going on a multi-day tour.
This equipment was all useless. Not because I didn’t encounter any mechanical mishaps, but because my hands were so cold that I would not have been able to use a single one of these items should the need arise. I would have been far better off just carrying a bivy sack that I could crawl into while I waited for my husband to pick me up.
This comes to the main failure of planning, misunderstanding how cold it would be. I am from Maryland and I know what it is like to exercise in the cold. The last two years, I have run a 25K trail race there in sub-freezing weather. I should have been better prepared.
I wore a standard jersey over a base layer with arm warmers, regular shorts, knee warmers, and full-finger (but not insulated) gloves. Around my neck was a Buff and I had a headband on over my ears, but both of these were pretty thin. I did have on wool socks and insulated booties over my shoes, so thankfully my feet did stay warm.
This was not suitable for the ride. If I had to do it over again, I would wear a wool shirt over my base layer and a thin wind-breaking jersey over that. My winter bike gloves (which I never wear in Florida because they are always too hot) would have been perfect. I also would have worn a wool headband and a fleece gaiter around my neck.
The Low Point – Mile 142
Although the last ten miles were extremely painful, I knew I was close to finishing, so I could suck it up. The worst moment of the race was turning back onto the dike access road, which was muddy and heading into the wind. I lost the group I had been tagging along with and my lungs hurt from breathing in the cold air. I did not consider quitting, but there was an extreme amount of whining going on in my head and I felt very sorry for myself.
The High Point – Mile 155
James and Jordan rode up behind me and said, “Hey would you like to work with us?” I was so happy to see someone else. Having someone to talk to and commiserate with made the end of the race so much better. Suffering is part of doing these races. In some ways, suffering is the point of these races. They are truly a test of your willingness to keep going in the face of adversity. Like everything else, adversity is better faced with others.
*I later discovered that Jordan had inadvertently cut off about five miles, so technically I was 24th out of the 48 people who signed up for the race. I was the top (and only) female over 50.