“Time On Bike” - And the Importance of Internalizing Your Goals
North Star Bicycle Race (NSBR) Sept 16-18, 2020
Summary: Given the need to recover from the record setting 7,100 mile Actualiz ride completed two months earlier I was not expecting to participate in this race until the week before it started. The story of the race was freezing nighttime temps with lots of moisture, moonless darkness, and continued headwinds which made night riding more difficult for everyone. Yet the weather stayed true to the short term forecast before the race and I was more or less prepared. My strategy was not to sleep for the duration of the 630 mile race with the exception of one or two 15-minute coffee naps. I took this approach because I though it gave me the best chance of success given the lack of riding and resulting uncertainty about what power (speed) I could sustain. This approach and its execution had downsides particularly on mental processes. And uncharacteristically, two of my stronger ‘ultra’ characteristics let me down a bit, a positive attitude, and ability to consume endless calories. Overall the field of riders was the strongest this race has seen. While I won with a time of 48:02, and a cushion of seven plus hours over second and third, I am not necessarily promoting the strategy that I took, and know that alternatives may well have produced better results.
The following details provide a lot of information on how I approached and executed this event. It is not meant to be a manual for how to do it, but rather provide detail that will allow racers to think about their own approaches. It also contains awards for the other riders from my perspective. Warning: it is long!
Race Headline: Freezing nighttime temps with lots of moisture and moonless darkness
Original: Spot watch and cheer on riders from comfort of car/bike along route.
6.5 days from start:
a. Personal: Stay Alive!
i. Win the race
ii. Complete in under 2 days
iii. Late add / Stretch goal: Set new record
c. Process: Don’t sleep during race (more than 1-2 coffee naps), sleep a lot prior to race
Three weeks after completing the 7075 mile Actualiz World Record Ride (AWRR) I was still feeling drained. I had already told myself that I was now retired from ultra-distance bike racing. I was determined to enjoy spot watching the North Star Bicycle Race from the comfort of my car, and breweries along the route at the end of the day. Sure I would take my bike, but only to be able to ride to the participants to provide some moral support. Yet every time I talk with one of my friends that would be racing I had more than a tinge of desire to participate myself. Then I would go home and in my quiet moments my body would always tell me “don’t race it” and be relieved that I had already told people I was not. A week before the race the six Minnesota Randonneurs that would be racing got together at my house to have a social moment sharing ideas, strategies, and plans regarding the race. As we talked it became clear to me that I would be participating as well.
When I was asked what strategy I would us, I succinctly said “it is all about time on bike.”
Unlike other races where I would set personal outcome and process goals well in advance, and have my training drawn up to try and maximize my success. This time I was simply going to ride the NSBR.There was no time for training or taperin g. With five days to go before the race I talked to my coach Greg Grandgeorge for the first time since the AWRR and he suggested a tempo ride so that I not overdo it, but at least get a good ride in. I tried to take solace in what I thought was the best advice I had given other that ask about this race, to lay off the long miles and high intervals in the two weeks prior to the race. Rest was better than another long ride or two.
If I was to race I would be racing to win, not participate. So that was my #1 goal. Also the year prior I was shooting for under 48 hours, but missed it by an hour and 10 minutes, so I had that goal as well. And as always I had the goal of finishing the race alive and without a major accident. Critical, but nothing new here.
I only had a scrap of strategy. That coming from a flippant comment I made to “Coach” Brian Rhea the NSBR Race Director while he was crewing for me on the AWRR. After completing a 600+, a 500+, four 300+, and 15 200+ rides more or less in a row. I suggested that if I rode the NSBR again I would do it without stopping for sleep.
The NSBR is 630 mile, 27 miles longer then my longest ride ever, but I could come into it with rest.
I had planned on being at the start anyway. My good friend and woman record holder, Kate Ankofski was excited about leading the race out together and I promised we would.
When I arrived at the start, everyone was looking ready to ride. That is everyone except Norman Ehrentreich who had just broken his seat and was attaching one he was able to borrow from Aaron Ehlers.
It was great to see my good biking friends (Rob Welsh, Rob Mosimann, Kate, Keith Rahn, John Jarvis, Keagan Stranger, Norman, Scott Gregory, Trisha Groth, Brain Rhea, and several others) as well as some new faces like Keaton Clark an engineering student that had recently ridden a 270 mile ride.
I was surprised by how light a few rider’s kits looked. In the week before the race the forecast had turned from super pleasant to freezing cold nighttime temperatures. Lake Superior is always colder, damper, and winder than the forecast suggests. Riding in freezing temperatures is simply winter riding. Compound both of those by the fact that after riding 12+ hours the sweat on clothes makes night riding colder. Worse, this year the forecast was for clear skies, likely lowering the temperatures further and more quickly. To top it off, it was going to be a new moon. Meaning that it would be black, giving cold the mental edge.
It was 80 degrees when I was packing, but by re-looking at the forecast I was able to remind myself that I was going to be riding in winter weather in 2 short days. I packed full winter gear only leaving out my warmest winter boots and goggles. Then I packed food, cleaning out the pantry, cupboards and frig. It was enough food for most of the trip: lots of nuts and sports/granola bars, two fruits, hard boiled eggs, three peanut butter and honey sandwiches, chocolates, yogurt, fruit cup, two muffins, a cookie, minidonuts, jolly rancher candy, gels, … At the time I thought it was a moderately poor selection with little diversity, but not a bad base to work from.
I stayed in the hotel a block from the start so I could bank more sleep and not have to get up 2.5 hours before the start. I was fully packed before going to sleep. Woke at 6:00, ate breakfast, and was at the start by 6:25.
We started at 7:02 I had not warmed up at all so I was glad to be at the front for the neutral roll out. I tend to warm up and build speed slowly and this allowed me to ride a slower pace and not have to worry that others were going to take off. It was nice to ride with Kate and get to talk with Keaton, Henry Marotske, Norman, and Rob M.
A bit later I had decided to slow down and say hi to the rest of the field, but when I looked back no one was around. Apparently the front half of riders made one of the few traffic lights while the back half were left waiting. That light may have made a significant difference for a couple riders in that the pace of the front group was faster than the pace of the back group which built in to a sizable gap on the first leg to Duluth. Even though each rider needs to ride their own race, it seem that if I see people or know they are just ahead or behind it can make subtle, but real differences inmy speed.
Keith R was the first to attack. I noticed Norman, Rob M, Keaton, and myself playing if cool, but keeping an eye on Keith R’s taillight so that he would not get too far ahead. Like a breakaway in the TdF. The pace picked up a bit, but was still very reasonable.
(Note: My spot tracker was not accurate for me at the start since Norman was riding within sight of me for most of the way out of the metro, but it shows me way behind.)
Rob M, Norman, Keith R, and I started to exchange positions at the front consciously staying on the windward side of the trail as we passed. Before Rush City Rob M started to crank a bit harder. I sped up a bit to keep him within sight. I had started the race a bit dehydrated and was intentionally drinking as much as I could to catch up. Two point five litters down by Pine City. Despite not wanting to stop, I did at the Casey’s just as I caught up to Rob. I am sure I saw a smile creep onto his face as he saw me turnoff. It was an efficient stop, 8 minutes (using the bathroom, getting abreakfast sandwich (for protein), salted nut roll (for hydration), and 3 liters of beverages, one of which was drunk “at the source”). Keith R had stopped afew minutes later. We exchanged pleasantries and I took off. Norman had passedme at the stop as I assumed he would.
Ultra-endurance is about riding your own race, so I set my pace and started to ride. I planned to stay under 80% of my FTP for the first four hours to make sure I did not burn out too fast. This was not a problem, given that 80% felt closer to max and happened to be in line with the other riders.
There was a `10 mph northeast wind for most of the 150 mile leg to Duluth so I was using my aero bars most of the way. This route is relatively flat and typically windy so I was more concerned about cutting through the wind than weight. Despite caring a lot of kit and food, using a frame pack made me feel reasonably aerodynamic.
I caught Norman near Hinckley, but Rob M was riding roughly the same pace and was keeping his distance ahead. I was out of water again by Carlton. I knew there was a park there and counting on it for water. But the water was turned off, which is one of the most ironic of all things associated with Covid-19, all public bathrooms and water fountains are turned off making it extra easy to “wash your hands often!” Here I had a bit of luck, I found a sealed bottle of drinking water in the picnic area as I headed to find a store.
Rob M stopped at the Quick Trip just off the Munger Trail, his first stop. I stopped too, used the rest room and got two more liters of water and a Starbucks frapachino for the night. It was early, but I know I would not get another chance to buy one later. I initially forgot the Starbucks and went back to pick it up knowing that I would lose three spots at the checkout, another minute or two wasted. Regardless, I was riding again in 10minutes. I only saw Rob as I was leaving and assumed we would see each other again soon.
My plan, as it had been in the previous two years, was to go to Betty’s Pies for my one actual break. On the way to two harbors I called ahead and ordered a burger, fries, and malt to be waiting for me when I got there. This is not what I would have preferred to eat, but they did not have the soup and egg salad sandwich that I remembered. The food was waiting for me, but my table was far from my bike so it was not as efficient as a night prep-stop could be. No way to organize the bike or change when not by my bike. Ordered a Dr. Pepper to start my caffeine for the day and two pieces of pie to go. I ate fast and was concerned about indigestion and slowed a bit.
(Note: I only use caffeine strategically, not as a general pick me up. I find that more effective and less likely to drop me off a cliff at the wrong time.)
I got to Betty’s wearing a hat, winter neck gator, long sleeve jersey, short sleeve jersey, warm reflective vest, shorts, long warm wool socks, and shoes. It was just a little before sunset so I got ready for night riding. I freshened the chamois zone, and added my warm leggings, extra possum down socks, glove liners, rain/water mitts, and rain jacket. I also confirmed where my other warm clothes were since I knew I would need more soon. The entire stop at Betty’s took 29 minutes.
As I left Two Harbors I noticed a text from Jon Lester the NSBR record holder. “Atta Boy Keith! 200 miles by dark, and you’ll be well on your way to the record.”
As expected, Rob passed me again while eating and he was riding fast. I was not worried, at this point I was pretty sure I was going to pass him again given that my next scheduled stop was the border. Although I did not see him as I road by, Rob was stopped near Beaver Bay. As the night came the cold wet air set in fast. I stopped on the side of the road to put on my ski gloves and replaced my rain jacket for my down jacket that I had brought as an emergency sleeping bag.
I received a mental boost from Amy Bergquist and Eric Larsen standing at the side of the road near Taconite Harbor with a sign and a bell well after 10:00 pm. They told me they would spot watch before the race and I wanted to take a picture if they came out, but I forgot. I realized pre Trans-Am that taking photos destroy my momentum and/or changes the mojo away from riding, so the thought of actually taking a picture during this race simply did not occur to me. Thank you Amy and Eric, you brought so much positive spirit to all the riders. What great spot watchers!
By the time I got to Grand Maria at 12:30 am everything was closed, I was cold and my hands had gone numb. I went to the Best Western thinking the lobby would be open. It was, and no one was at the front desk so I sat down and added shoe covers, rain/wind pants, and inserted hand and foot warmers. A friendly woman then came to the front desk and suggest that I get a cup of coffee from the dining room and indicated where the restroom was. I went to the bathroom and ran water on my hands to regain feeling in my fingers. Then sat in the dining area and ate a piece of my pie with a hot tea. This was a 40 minute unscheduled stop, but it was worth every second of it. I headed back out feeling pretty good and ready for what I consider to be the toughest portion of the ride. From Grand Maria to the boarder and back over Mt Josephine twice. I put it in a low gear and road over slowly without much consideration. My mind was tuning out. Coming down Josephine there was some nasty road construction that ultimately ended in loose gravel. An unfortunate way to be rewarded for the climb.
I got to the visitor center at the border, marking the half-way point in under a day (21:24) at 4:25 am. I had planned on taking a coffee nap and laid down on the tile floor to sleep for up to 20 minutes. I had given myself and an extra 5 minutes since I was more or less on schedule. Although I had my sleeping pad for this purpose I did not use it. Why? I mistakenly thought it would take too much time to take out and then roll up when I was done. This was a BIG mistake. If done right a coffee nap can be worth up to four hours of sleep. But this floor was ice cold and it keep me from achieving much, other than tight back muscles. I filled my water and left 42 minutes later.
(Note: A coffee nap is taking 1-2 times the amount of caffeine that you would normally take at that time. Sleep for 15-25 minutes, and naturally wake up by the caffeine.)
Given that I was starting my second day, I should have gone to the bathroom when I woke up. This is my time to flush the system to allow it to be subjected to another day of eating. I did not. This turned into a big issue.
There is no cell signal north of Grand Maria so I had no idea how others were fairing. I climbed back to Grand Portage and saw no one. Then a few mile later I saw Norman. We chatted a bit and he looked in remarkably good shape considering he had broken his chain and fixed it in the middle of no where in the freezing cold. Norman had not slept yet either.
Eric was the next rider. He too looked strong, but indicated that was not the case and was talking about staying near Duluth on the way back south. I believe he had tried to stealth camp, but it was too cold and he gave up. Although at this time it was starting to get hard for me, and likely both of us, to communicate in a crystal clear fashion.
Brian was next. The conversation was about cold. He was as psyched up and charging as much as one can at pre-dawn. Then Rob M and Keith R came by. I wanted to talk with them to get the skinny on what transpired over the night. But they didn’t slow when I went to their side of the road so simply yelled friendly greetings.
Dawn arrived over Lake Superior. Boy that makes the entire race worth it in itself.
Then Keaton, Rob W and John clipped by. By this time I clearly had lost any mental edge.
As I’m riding into Grand Maria I see second text from Jon. “A solid day kills the record! Get it!!” I know that all I need to do is stay on my bike and I would set a new record. It would be close, but I would likely have the adrenaline to do it if it was close. My legs were still feeling OK, but my brain was starting to check out.
A moment later I hit a rock in a short patch of construction and blew my rear sidewall. It was a big tear. I am not sure a tire boot will hold it, but without a spare tire it was my only hope. I removed my tubeless tire and wiped out the sealant with the half of napkin I had, put on a boot, and inserted a tube and installed the tire. The problem was that I had a 5mm taller rim than I had been using in the past and the tube value was for the old rim and too short. When packing I had confused an extra valve with my value extension, so I did not have the extender. I jimmy rigged my pump and finally got some air in the tire. This tire repair took a full 35 minutes.
I then road disgusted and mentally deflated into the Holiday Station in Grand Maria. It is uncharacteristic for me to be in a poor mood when riding. It is something I simply stopped doing a couple years ago. I figure I ride for fun, so if I am riding, I must be having fun! However, here I was in a sour mood and not thinking clearly.
I washed my hands and got one small bottle of juice. The liter of Gatorade I thought I had was empty as was one of my water bottles. This entire stop was a total waste. Even though it was only 5 minutes, it should have been my last stop of the race. I could have easily gotten everything I needed for the rest of the race there, minus a few beverages. However, I left with practically nothing to drink and did not restock my food. As a result I needed to stop again in Tofte at the general store which is a place to avoid at all cost. Its selection of food and beverages was far below the Holiday and much slower to find. Thirteen minutes in all.
(Note: Before almost every stop I make a list of what 1) supplies, 2) hygiene, and 3) maintenance is needed. When I get to the stop I run through this list in the same order to make sure I don’t forget anything. I did not do this at either of these stops and was reminded how critical that is.)
Mike and I waved as we passed, another rider looking good on the road. Then Ryan, Kate, Chase, and Henry came by. Everyone seemed in good spirits. Kate told me how she and Ryan had waited out the cold and had an adventure in the Holiday Station the previous night. Despite that, she seemed much more energetic then I felt. Her energy was almost contagious. We had stopped at the busiest section of Hwy 61 and were close to being clipped a couple of times before we decided it would be better to move on.
Amy was again out on the side of the road. Another shot of enthusiasm! (Amy was a clerk for RBG and the bad news came just a few hours later.) I focused on the amazing fall colors and ignored my grumpy mind.
I rode uneventfully and progressively slower to Duluth, skipping Betty's Pies for the first time in three years. I was bonking. But, I had become full of shit, literally, and could not comfortably eat. Nothing tasted good, and nothing would go down. I tried a gel, but needed real food. I was on a mission to find a Subway in Duluth. Often a real break and a foot long with a Dr. Pepper can make things right.
I found one right across from my beloved Quik Trip and go in. It was the worst Subway experience that I have ever had. It started with the restaurant no longer serving roast beef. “Sorry we use bacon now. No Substitutions.” I am not sure how someone can mess up a sub sandwich, but this guy figured it out. The first 6” sandwich I had was about the size of a small dill pickle after he had squeezed it so hard wrapping it in the paper. Don’t get me going on the cardboard meat that was supposedly in there. The second foot long with bacon I simply could not eat. The bathrooms were locked (more Covid stupidity). Not helpful. It took 15 minutes for the guy to open one for me. Then instead of using my best saddle sore prevention, Dermol 500, I washed with soap and paper towel. And then dried with a paper towel. Wrong! Even though I changed my shorts I think I had caused a new saddle sore before I even left the bathroom. By the time I got to St Paul they were far worse than any I had on the AWRR. The entire 45 minutes that I was at the Subway the speakers were blaring commercials. I was more flustered than at any time in the last 2 years trying to get out of that horrid place. I called Wendy and ranted for 3 minutes and then said I need to eat more quickly and hung up. Sorry about that. Then I butt dialed both my daughters and my sister before I could finally turnoff my phone. I apologize. My sister called me back and just a moment of her everything is going to be alright voice help snap me back to reality. I finally got out of there so thankful to be on my bike again and mostly ready for night riding.
As I climbed out of Duluth I remember that this is the section that I raced hardest on in the two previous years. I start to turn it up because I knew I could. After wasting so much time, and not pushing for most of the afternoon, I finally decide to determine how fast I need to go to beat the record. I figure I need to go faster than 16 mph average for the last ten hours. I try going above 16 for about two hours before I determine that that speed was not maintainable for the rest of this race. (I end up riding 13.2 MPH from Duluth to St Paul.) I resign myself to the fact that I had not fully committed to my last minute goal of setting a new record, and as a result it was not going to happen today.
The night is pitch black and the headlight on the frost in the air and on the ground starts playing tricks on my vision. I start seeing things that could not be there. My sight is poor anyway and I find hallucinations are much worse when it is really dark and the only light is my headlight, rather than say moon light. Luckily the Munger Trail is very straightforward so it is hard to go astray so I just kept riding. South of Hinckley back on the road, the hallucinations start getting worse. My glasses are reflecting what looks like another rider to my right. I keep on giving more room to this ghost rider and soon find myself in the centerof the road. Look over and realize it is nothing, and move back to the fogline. I do this again, then a third time. Now there is a rider on my left too and I am wondering why these two have to ride so close to me when the road is otherwise completely empty. Finally I convince myself to just ride straight down the fog line and not worry about them being so close.
South of Hugo back on the trails, things start to get really weird. For instance there appared to be two 12 foot long multi-colored caterpillars marching alongside me. I never did figure out what they were. Then I started seeing people on the path, but when I got to them they would disappear into a mirage. This was somewhat ok until the people I saw did not disappear! At this point, I stopped at a sheltered picnic table and took a second coffee nap. Fifteen minutes should do it. It did. I set my alarm accordingly, just in case, but woke naturally twelve minutes later and got on my bike feeling better than I had since the border.
My hallucinations were gone and average speed went about two mile an hour. I remembered and refocused on the 48 hour goal. Soon after, the early dawn started to light the sky. Overall I felt pretty good, but there was not much left in the legs for going much faster.
It is amazing how long the last 30 miles are. By memory it seems like I was almost there, yet I continued to ride for two more hours.
I had thought we started about 7:10 two days earlier given Norman's saddle and the photos. A week later after checking the Garmin file I saw that it was 7:02. It was 7:01 as I waited at the stop light two blocks from the finish. Then I was stopped by the light across from the finish. It was 7:04 when I rolled in. It was so heartwarming to see Ann and Leah Rhea, Scott, Trisha and her awesome son that had come out to cheer me in.
I finished in 48 hours 2 minutes. Of that, moving “Time on Bike” was 42:11. I was off bike, or not moving, for 5:51. I slept a total of 27 minutes.
Racer Awards from My Perspective:
Most Focused: Brian – He was not stopping until he hit the finish
Strongest Rider: Rob M – Had the best sustained moving speed
Biggest Future Threat: Eric - Near the front the entire race, but swears he was in survival mode
Most Combative: Keith R - Got the race started with his first attack and slashed over 10 hours off previous time!
Best Course Prep without Actually Riding It: Rob W – Super control sheet that only an experienced Randonneur would have
Most Positive: Norman - Despite losing his teeth, breaking his chain, and enduring serious phone issues on the way back to the finish
Most Likely to Race Again Next Year / White Jersey: Keaton -Excited to avoid “rookie mistakes.” At 20 years, look out!
Best Mechanic: Chase – Fixed four flats without people noticing
Most Improved: Ryan – Finish in about the same time as it took him to ride 2/3s of the route the prior year
Most Loved / Most Communicative: Kate – Easily had four times the number of well-wishers at her finish, and posts during the race
Most Enthusiastic Scratcher: Henry – As well documented by his posts
Most Unlucky: John – Tire de-lamination at the border makes for a slow ride home. Or should I say a fast ride home.
Honorable Mentions: Mike, Dylan, and Mike – Starting this race is impressive in itself.
Photo: Aaron Ehlers (Thanks!)