Monday, May 1, 2023

Crushed by the Commonwealth 2023, i.e. a DNF

I rolled over on the cot in Cinderblochner's spare room and looked at my phone. It was 3:30 A.M., and time to wake up. I went downstairs and drank my morning Mountain Dew and ate my morning Nutella-covered bagels. Combined with a bunch of pizza and late-night chocolate the night before, I was feeling quite stuffed. But in a good way. Well, I guess not in a good way, but in a good-for-a-long-ride kind of way.

The squad

Rob and I got dressed into our best rain-defeating gear and headed down to his garage to meet Stick, whose wife dropped him off at Rob's place. We were all fired up to get going, and after a few high-fives and general excitement noises, we pedaled down to the Point, where the actual ride started. It was a six-mile ride, and it wasn't raining yet, so it wasn't bad at all.

At the Point (that's Point State Park for those of you who don't habla) wet met up with the rest of the intrepid bikecyclists who would be attempting to pedal to Philadelphia. The course was about 380 miles, and started off with 100 miles of the GAP rail-trail, before continuing on State Bicycle Route S (the "S" stands for Scary roads), which is mostly main roads like Route 30 and 31.

At last, the clocks hit 5:00 A.M, and Rob led us out. It started off very mellow, just chatting with some fellow cyclists I know, like Scott G. and Steve G. Before long, our merry trio of singlespeeders fell off the "lead" group, and we settled into a smooth pace.

Riding to the start at about 4:30 AM

Still in the dark at about 5:30 A.M., a rabbit darted out onto the rail. I narrowly missed it, but the Cinderbloch smooshed it. Poor rabbit. Maybe it survived... one can hope (but one can also doubt). Around the same time, the rain was getting heavier and heavier, although never what you would call a downpour. Still, it was 50 degrees, dark, and rainy - very unpleasant.

The pedaling was pretty unremarkable for a while, and when we got onto the crushed limestone part of the GAP trail, the surface was not as bad as we had feared. It was soft and grimy, but still rideable. Before long, Jesse S. rode up alongside us and we talked for a while. He ended up crushing the entire route in one-go, so major kudos to him. We rode with him for maybe 45 minutes or so before he headed on his way.

Nothing much of note really happened on the GAP trail. We stopped at a Sheetz in Connellsville, got some food, and witnessed the excessive amount of mud on the Sheetz floor from all us dirty cyclists. Sorry Sheetz. After Connellsville, it was still another 50 miles or so of GAP trail. Luckily, as we got closer to Ohiopyle, the scenery got a lot nicer. The trees are getting pretty green, and it was actually much less monotonous than I had feared. In Ohiopyle, we stopped quickly to top off our bottles at a fountain, and Rob fixed Stick's rain coat zipper. We've all lost track of how many times Rob has saved the day with his ingenuity.

Eventually, however, even the good scenery got old. By the time we were 95 miles in on the GAP trail, we were all ready for it to be over. Bring on the pavement. Thanks to a slight miscalculation of distance, we thought we only had 2 miles left of GAP trail. But, when we saw the next sign, we realized we still had an additional 6 miles. Oof. Finally, we made it off the GAP trail.

The next few miles were a moderately busy road to a Sheetz in Somerset. Once there, we loaded up on more food, knocked off more mud on the floor (just kidding, we had fenders and actually weren't muddy at all), and chatted with some fellow riders. It was there that Scott and Steve decided to pull the plug on their effort. With the horrible conditions, it was a very reasonable choice, and I know both of them are tough-as-nails.

Nonetheless, the three of us continued on past Somerset. Right after leaving the Sheetz, we were met with a headwind like no other. It's not an exaggeration to say it must've been sustained 30-35mph winds with gusts probably over 40mph. It was extreme. Poor Stick and his anti-gravity body were getting blown around, but thankfully, it wasn't raining. That is, until it did start raining a few minutes later. Now it was extreme winds, rain, and a shitty busy road. Fun.

Rob told us the next turn was in 12 miles, and let me tell you, that was some of the longest 12 miles of my life. I don't like riding on busy roads. At one point, we got a steep climb on Route 30 (or 31, I don't know, both suck) and all I could do was look down at the ground and turn the pedals over in sadness, or regret, or a combination of both. It was definitely a low point on the ride thus far. I don't like busy roads, have I said that already?

Eventually, we made it off the main road and had a less-busy pavement descent. That was nice. Before long, we joined back onto the main highway, but it wasn't as bad. It started to rain again at some point, and when we got near Bedford, it really started to pick up. I was getting pretty cold at this point, and hadn't eaten in a while, but it was manageable. We all started counting down the miles to Breezewood, where we'd stop at a Sheetz and refuel before we intended to keep pushing on.

The last 15 or so miles to Breezewood were pretty strange for me. For some reason, most of my motivation to keep riding was disappearing. I just couldn't motivate myself to keep riding on busy roads for over 200 more miles. The combination of busy roads, rain, and being cold just seemed to sap away all my desire to keep pedaling. 

To be completely honest, I had almost convinced myself that I was going to be done in Breezewood regardless of what Rob and Stick thought. It was that bad for me, mentally. On the other hand, physically, I actually felt pretty good. I was a little tired, but my legs felt good, and after eating some food, I started to feel what I'd almost consider "very good" once again. Finally, as we approached Breezewood, my mental state started to pick back up. I let out a loud "Yoooooo!" and hopped around on my bike a little bit, which maybe made Rob think I was losing my mind. I wasn't, though, I swear.

That excitement sort of faded away again though, because I was starting to get cold again as the rain picked back up. Plus, as we got to Breezewood, we had to cross a major highway, and all the traffic just kept making me less excited.

When we got into Sheetz, I was freezing. I was having a hard time eating anything because my arms were shaking from cold and I felt like I'd never warm up again. That being said, I did take a 200mg caffeine pill at Sheetz, anticipating to continue riding to Chambersburg.

So like I said, I wasn't looking forward to riding to Chambersburg, but I didn't want to be the one to say I wanted to stop. Thankfully, Rob must've been feeling the same as me, and wasn't looking forward to riding more either. Rob looked at me and said, "I think I'm done here". I immediately agreed with him. I was done also. Stick, even though he was seemingly warmer than me and Rob, also agreed with our decision to pull the plug.

We sat around in Sheetz for a little before going to a hotel across the street that Rob picked. Chrissy was extremely generous to drive down to Breezewood that night to bring us some clothes and drive us home the next day.

It felt good to get a hot shower, but it didn't feel good to quit. I mean, don't get me wrong, I was fully on-board with the decision to quit. In fact, I was glad. But still, it never feels good to fail. Luckily, as the collective sobriety of our trio subsided in the hotel room, so did our feelings of regret.

The next morning, Chrissy drove us home in her van, and thus the story of our Crush the Commonwealth attempt of 2023 was over. It was an experience, that's for sure.

I want to write a little bit more abstractly about it, though, so if you feel like reading that, please do continue.

Smiling after knowing we didn't need to ride in rain anymore

My biggest takeaway from this experience is that I don't love ultra road riding. Busy roads aren't my jam. That being said, ultra road riding is still something I want to do occasionally, so I need to figure out how to wrap my head around it better. When we quit in Breezewood, I was mentally cooked. Literally zero percent of me wanted to continue riding. Sure, I was cold, but more than that, my head just wasn't in it to keep riding all night on main roads in the rain. If I wasn't super cold, I would've kept riding, but it would have been extremely mentally taxing, and who knows how much longer I would've made it. To be totally honest, maybe a small part of me was glad I was cold, so I wouldn't feel as bad about quitting than if I just gave up mentally. And that upsets me, and it makes me want to try Crush the Commonwealth again, despite all the misery.

I feel like I have two choices now: learn to mentally conquer the super long pavement riding, or just accept that it's not my cup of tea. I'm a pretty stubborn person, so clearly, I'm going to choose to try and get my head right for long pavement riding. I really do think ultra endurance things are mostly mental, and if ultra MTB riding is, say, 75% mental, then ultra road riding is like 95% mental. Seriously. Don't get me wrong, I was tired in Breezewood and extremely cold, but mentally, I was beyond shot. That sort of surprised me, and it almost excites me to try and improve that. I would say in Breezewood, I was physically nowhere near as tired as even after a 100 mile MTB race. But mentally, it felt like I already did a 24 hour MTB race.

As for tangible changes I would make if I were to do it again, for one, I would bring better rain gear. Ultralight rain jackets and pants just aren't cut out for extended rain rides. My Outdoor Research Helium jacket literally soaked through in one minute of rain. It really does nothing except act as another layer. Then, I would also bring waterproof shoe covers and warmer layers, like a puffy jacket with synthetic filling. I also think I would try to stop less, because at least for me personally, I start to lose my rhythm if I stop too long. Although, on the other hand, the longer stops do give some time for rest. It's tough to say what is better.

I can genuinely say that I'm glad I tried the CTC. I'm extremely disappointed that I didn't finish, but as cliche as it sounds, I think it taught me a lot of lessons of what to do differently next time. At the very least, I know more that to expect. That said, don't expect to see me doing any more road ultras for a while, I'll be sticking to dirt, whether that's trails or gravel or whatever. 

Also, I'd really like to emphasize how awesome my friends are. Rob and Stick were great companions for this attempt (it was Rob's idea, actually), and I'm always grateful to know people like that. There's a lot I love about biking, and the people really tie it all together. I'm looking forward to going to Pisgah with Rob this weekend!

One final thing for posterity, in case anyone reads this far. I am totally impressed with everyone who finished CTC 2023. All of the finishers had a hell of a lot more mental toughness and preparedness than I had, and it's certainly something I aspire toward.

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