On February 5–6, I competed in the Pace Bend Ultra. There were a number of divisions: 6-hour, 12-hour, 24-hour, solo and teams, men, women, and mixed (for teams). The idea is you ride around a loop as many times as you can until you reach your time limit. I competed in the 24-hour solo division. This was my first attempt at anything like this.
This would have been difficult under ideal conditions, and the conditions were not ideal. The overnight low was forecast to be 25°F; I had the temperature displayed on my bike-computer app, and when it was showing 31°F, I heard that the actual temperature measured on the course was 27°F. That’s really cold. I’ve commuted at roughly that temperature, but my bike commute takes 22 minutes each way. I was very anxious about the cold in the days before the race, and I wasn’t sure if my preparations would be adequate.
The course is a 6.2-mile loop inside Pace Bend Park, about an hour’s drive outside of Austin. Apparently the course used to be notorious for it’s “meteor impact” pavement, but a couple of years ago it was resurfaced, and is currently pretty nice.
The race started at noon on Saturday, with all the 12-hour and 24-hour riders departing together. This being a time trial, drafting is not allowed, but because of the relatively crowded mass start, we had a pass for the first lap.
My first two laps I was running hot—the trick with distance riding is to keep your level of exertion in a limited range—not too high, so you don’t burn all your matches prematurely. I was a little worried about that, but by the third lap, I was able to get it under control. I later heard from another racer who felt the same.
I had looked at the course elevation profile beforehand, and was not too concerned about the hills: 312 feet of climbing per lap, or about 50 feet per mile. No big deal. What I didn’t realize until I was a few laps into it is that while none of the hills are particularly difficult, you’re never not on a hill. You never have a chance to hunker down and motor. I was constantly finding I was in the wrong gear.
My fueling strategy worked pretty well. I spent a fair amount of time researching that, and while I learned a lot, I ultimately went with my gut (sorry). I made up a batch of big oatmeal-raisin cookies, and a bunch of small chicken-salad tacos. Every 2nd and 4th lap, I would eat a cookie, and every 6th lap I would eat a taco. I would need to pull into my pit station to eat the taco, which was fine—on the advice of a more experienced ultra rider, I planned on taking a pit stop every six laps anyhow; I’d refill the cookies I was carrying when I did that. Eating the cookies while riding was a little more difficult to manage than I anticipated, but I’m sure I could solve that problem. My hunger went up and down—there were points when I was really hungry, and then later, not too hungry. I was able to stick to this eating schedule pretty closely for all my time on the bike, but once it got dark, I decided it would be better to stop to eat my cookies than to eat them on the fly. I thought about using liquid fuel, and ultimately decided against. During training, I experimented with some liquid options, and they didn’t sit well in my stomach. I also tend to under-hydrate, so even on a hot ride, I wouldn’t get a lot of calories that way. According to the Training Peaks estimate (I don’t have a power meter on my bike), I burned 10,500 calories, which sounds about right. About half of that probably came from stored fat (which would be less than 2 lb).
At 6 hours, I felt like there was a turning point in the event. It was getting dark and cold, everyone had burned off the last shred of nervous energy, and we were all settling into the pace that we’d maintain for the rest of the race. It was at about this point that I started adding layers for warmth. I started out wearing a high-tech base layer, a jacket, cold-weather shorts, leg warmers, cool-weather gloves, insulating wool socks, and lightweight booties. At around this point, I added a beanie under my helmet and a wool base layer. Later I would add a fleece neck buff, my rain jacket, and a pair of running tights; I also swapped my gloves for warmer ones.
At 11 hours, I discovered the warming tent. It was not especially warm—I could see my breath in there—but it was warmer. It wasn’t provided by the event organizers, but by a team: there were some people helping their teammates providing de-facto neutral support, and they gave me soup and hot chocolate in addition to a warm place to sit and socialize with other racers taking breaks.
At 12 hours, I had all my extra layers on and still couldn’t get warm—I was shivering uncontrollably in my core. One of the guys in the warming tent who was there in a support capacity lent me his jacket (which was big enough to fit over the 4 layers I was already wearing) and it made a huge difference.
At 13 hours, I was riding a little erratically on the road, and I was really worried about my ability to ride through the coldest part of the night. When I stopped in the warming tent, I realized I could take a nap and just sleep through that part, and I gave myself permission to do that. My attitude and riding improved immediately.
At 15 hours, I decided to take that nap in the warming tent, where there was a cot. I had a sleeping bag with me, but I never really got comfortable enough to sleep. It was miserable. At some point I moved from the cot to a reclining folding chair, and while I didn’t sleep there either, I found it more restful.
At 20 hours, just before 8 AM, I ended my pretend-nap, at which point the sun was out and the temperature had risen to the freezing point. I was not very refreshed, but I was riding a lot better than when I had stopped for my so-called nap.
At 21 hours, the 6-hour division started. While there were obviously some hardcore time-trialists in the 12- and 24-hour divisions, the 6-hour division had a higher percentage—I think that was the only division where people were using disk wheels. They would rocket past me on their TT bikes like I was standing still. There was also one hapless guy in the 6-hour division who must have seen an ad for the event and thought “that sounds like fun.” He was riding a hybrid, wearing basketball shorts and knee socks. It was clear he was not an experienced rider. I think he rode two or three laps and packed it in. I can only imagine how he felt lining up at the start with guys who looked like they were riding spaceships.
Gwen also showed up around this time with food. She crammed a homemade biscuit with gravy in my mouth. I was glad to see her.
At 23 hours and 15 minutes, I packed it in. At that point, my lap time was about 30 minutes (partial laps are not counted), so I could have squeezed in one more lap, but I was starting to ride erratically, and decided it wasn’t worth it.
At the end of the race, I learned that I was one of only two competitors who didn’t have a car to warm up in. I think that made a difference. There’s no telling how I would have fared if I had been able to warm up every few laps, or if I had been better insulated, but if I had ridden through that five-hour pretend nap at my last-lap pace, my distance would have been right around 300 miles, which I had predicted to be my “realistic-optimistic” distance.
I knew, but kind of forgot, that my body cannot regulate its temperature when I’m exhausted: if it’s the slightest bit cold, it’s hard for me to warm up. I definitely experienced that in the race. Part of the problem is that as I get worn out, I can’t push myself as hard and can’t raise my heart rate, so I’m generating less heat, but there’s something else at work too. I’ll need to be careful to be better insulated if I do anything like this again.
Final results: 241.8 miles, 39 laps. 2nd place in the men’s solo 24-hour upright-bike division (out of five), first in my age group. My actual time in motion was 15:34.