Operation 300 Part B
300w, 100 miles-
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Nothing is ever perfect in life. You have to go when you have to go. Travelling over Christmas meant that from 23rd December 2019 I was taking a week-long break from the bike. I was incredibly lucky with the attempt I had planned as an adventurer friend of mine, Theo, had with the most graciousness offered to be follow-car. He had set dates available. With my traveling plans also factored in the date was pretty much pinned on 22nd December. My training plan had originally had the week of 16th to 22nd of December as the one containing D-Day and the actual date fell right at the end of that. It was scheduled to be cold with wind and rain. Not ideal, but couldn't be avoided. It was what we had and it was what we went with.
Theo is an established endurance event crazy man having completed multiple of his own challenges (several Everesting attempts, some successful, some not, even an hour record attempt at a local velodrome, naming just a few bike-related ones). This made him a perfect corner man for this bout. He apparently had a somewhat sadistic side in wanting to participate on my behalf and was very generous in offering to help me. He offered to ride as Directeur Sportif in a follow car. For the entire 100 miles- which is absolutely incredible. It was a massive help and genuinely offered me a shot at success. First up I could count on support in case of a mishap. Second, Theo and I had planned a pan-flat route for the effort in the hope of being able to go as fast as possible. We needed a good return on speed for 300w. We enlisted Theo's brother Émile who used to live in California's Central Valley to contribute to designing the route. For those who do not know, the Central Valley is flat. Very flat. One other thing about the Valley is that there is a prevailing wind in most instances meaning that a point-to-point route is ideal (not out-and-back) which would have been a nightmare to achieve without a follow car to take you to the start and take you home after. The additional benefit of a follow car was having help at intersections and stop signs. The follow car was able to move ahead at the few isolated intersections we would hit and clear them in advance, or at least let me know what was happening (we were connected by race radio for the entire effort through which Theo could pass on instructions and inspiration). Not slowing for intersections was a huge benefit- every second coasting at 0 watts would require 2 seconds at 600 to compensate. Route set, date set, help and support enlisted. It was go-time.
Less than 24-hours before the ride start we decided to flip the route- the start became the finish and vice versa. This was in response to a storm moving through California which had reversed the usual northerly wind in the valley, as well as bringing rain and cold temperatures. To go as fast as possible I really needed the wind to help, or at the very least not be in my face. Nature had made the call. We got up before dawn and loaded up the required equipment for a departure at 5am. Travelling to the start would require a 3 hour drive.
We strained our eyes as we sped down Interstate 99. This was the major north-south highway we were taking to the start. Scanning the horizon as we passed buildings and farmhouses we were in search of flags. Flags blowing in our intended direction of travel to confirm our course amendment. The interwebs had fortunately been correct and as we barreled southward along the I99 we saw each flag blowing back into our car's face. Despite the inevitable rain which was forecast and the cold temperatures, at least there was going to be a tailwind. It made all the difference. Heading to the start line it seemed possible that this might just work. I had done 4 hours at 300w before. If I could get my average speed up to around 25mph for that power with a little help from a favourable course and climate, it could be possible. For sure I wouldn't need to do more than I had previously. I was at least in known territory, so I thought.
The start was a discrete location on a road in California. No significant markings. Some gravel on the side of a long, flat, straight country road. This was it. My arena presented itself. The overcast sky, predictive of the rain and chill that would be encountered in an hour or so topped a sideless colosseum. The spectators were absent at the start, but comprised of intermittent farmers going about their business, or occasionally a dog, as the day wore on, neither of which paid mind, neither of which seemed to notice my intrusion into their habitat which formed my 100 mile velodrome.
Pockets limited to food and gels, bottles loaded, power meter on, zero offset established. It was time to start. I was off. I'm not one for warmups, especially for an effort at 300w, so it was simply ready-steady-go! I knew what to expect. The fist 30 minutes are a little uncomfortable as your body searches for rhythm. The next 90 minutes are comfortable- you are setting a pace and have found a good cadence. At 2 hours there is comfort in your progress. At 2 hours 30 the strain starts to toll. Dripping inexorably first through your mind, then down your body into your legs, doubt comes. At 3 hours the magnitude of the effort is completely apparent. It hurts. Then it is nothing but a war for what time remains- up to an hour if calculations were right. My experience with these efforts was a great help and with my mentality already planned (based on what I knew to expect) there were few surprises as I kicked off and within minutes started thinking about how I felt off and how I was always in a gear too high or a gear too low. This was the opening act and I knew I would feel 'off'. I took comfort in experience and continued. As I knew, after 30 minutes or so the rhythm became comfortable. I tried to not stare at the watt measurements on my screen. In the comfortable stages after the opening 30 minutes this was a constant source of belief. I'd just pedal at what felt comfortable then after a few minutes look to assess my numbers. During this period the effort seemed to come with ease. Numbers in the 310s and 320s felt easy. I'd tell myself to ease off. After easing off the numbers would tell me that my effort felt low but my numbers were on. I had reached the comfort zone.
The roads were long and straight. A rare overpass but no significant features. I pedaled on.
Theo would pop up in my ear informing me of how long we were riding each stretch of road. How long until our next left or right turn. At one turn towards the West an endless arrow-straight road stretched out before me, reaching the horizon. The horizon was met by a thick, grey bank of sky. Our storm was awaiting our arrival. All things considered, I was pretty lucky. I had started in the dry and didn't get wet until about an hour in. It's always mentally much easier to start a ride in dry rather than wet weather and for that I was grateful.
I'd noticed a pleasing slightly over-geared cadence that I had adopted in previous efforts like this. About 80 RPM in the drops. To little surprise this was my go-to on lots of the course. Where no significant hindrance (like climbs) are encountered a strong pedal stroke felt good and enabled good power output. As I hit the 25 mile mark (I had distance on my computer, not time- I was scheduled to have a gel every 12 miles so was using that metric) I had an average of 308w accumulated. I felt good, had eaten on schedule, my stomach and legs felt good. I was moving.
The rain came and I got wet. My cadence remained and my progress continued. I tried to play a mental game. Would the rain water reduce rolling resistance between the tyre and road? Was I getting faster? Would my drivetrain have less friction? Was I getting more speed for my watts? I'd turn, sometimes left, sometimes right. Sometimes my tailwind would disappear and start hitting me from the side. Sometimes it would come back again. I knew not to focus or worry on the minutiae of the route. It had been calculated. The route was planned for speed, the fewest intersections, a helpful wind and a flat route. I took solace in the preparation. I was content.
Disaster struck- a flat. It's OK, I thought; stay focused. I was about 90 minutes in and pulled over. Theo pulled up immediately. My initial thought was 'dammit' but then I realised that yes, I had been disturbed from the slumber that was my rhythm but it wasn't a disaster. It could be overcome. We quickly identified the puncture, plugged the tubeless tyre and pumped it back up to pressure. The plug and sealant held. I tried to take the positives and took the opportunity to swap bottles to full ones and drop off empty gel wrappers. This meant that a moving bottle handoff and the inevitable reduction in power associated with such a maneuver could be avoided later on. At least there was that. Back on the road in just a few minutes and back up to power. I was able to get back into the required rhythm with ease so no significant loss.
The 50 mile mark was reached with a 307w average power. I was half way by distance. The power was good and the effort achievable. The rain desisted leaving a damp and cold day into which my battle continued. The miles expired but things became different around the point when the 60 mile mark passed. In the preceding first two hours my gaze would slip from the computer screen to the vast expanse in front of me and after what seemed a short period, my glancing at the screen would reveal that another 2 miles had passed. Now, the same exercise, the same perceived time frame and the same re-inspection of the computer would reveal that only 0.6 miles had been covered during the intermission. I had reached the stage after that of comfort, the first flickers of fatigue began to burn within. Smoldering embers providing only a small amount of heat, but make no mistake, the fire would grow and expand, the fire would get larger, would consume and would envelop all. I was into the back half of the journey and the expected resistance was starting to form against me. The battle was well and truly on.
The 75 mile mark passed with an average of 304w on the screen. I was unaware of the time (actually 3:06) but knew I was getting tired. Probably a bit more fatigued than I had hoped. Turn the cranks, keep it going. I was looking at the numbers and new I had a bit of wiggle room. If I could keep the numbers in the 290s then the average for 100 miles would be right on 300w. As I continued under an albeit great but thankfully damp but not deluging sky, my speed was picking up as we had hit the final leg without turns. My power however, was falling. I tried to pedal at higher cadence, looking for comfort, but the number remained persistently below my target. I tried a higher gear but the effort which had come so easily before was absent. Again, the numbers were persistently low. Wherever I could see a slight climb, perhaps out of the saddle would help. This did offer some respite from the declining power output but no consistency was to be found here as the course, by design, was flat and any slight rise was for no more than a few seconds. The emptiness within began to manifest. I wasn't bonking, but just failing to get the power. My ability to keep the numbers high was slowly ebbing away.
At about 85 miles, only 15 miles from the finish, my average power for the entire effort was at 301w. It was still on, but things were only going one way. I tried as many mental games as I could to keep focused knowing that in any sense 15 miles is a minuscule distance, but at that time it felt like so, so far. Then a problem. Cramp struck my left thigh. Despite the momentary relaxation required, and associated drop in power for that period, I would have to forge on with a very tender left leg effort, trying in desperation to not prompt a worsening of the ailment. This in itself wasn't catastrophic. I knew cramp would feature at some point. I was hoping to hit the 90 mile mark before that but in any case, this was not unexpected. I set about keeping focused and trying to push more work onto my other leg where I could. A few miles later a slight rise appeared in front of me. A good opportunity to get out of the saddle and switch things up. As I rose onto the pedals and began to exert force I could feel the constant 'on-edge' tightness in my left quad. As I sought not to agonise this further, I forced extra exertion onto my other leg. Immediately, the cramp which had thus far been limited to my left leg suddenly, and painfully, made itself known in my right quad. Boom, both legs cramping. Both legs tight and both legs arguing against me and my mission. I sat back in the saddle and retreated to a higher cadence and lower power, gingerly pedalling in an effort to appease my protesting quadriceps. I passed the crest of the small hill, and tried to regain speed and power. I persisted, although at that point, with the toll of my exertions weighing ever more heavily, I knew that another 15 miles was tough. I continued. I went on trying to keep my legs appeased whilst maintaining the required power. Efforts at 260-280w seemed comfortable, but each foray into a higher zone risked inciting a revolt in my legs. Eighty-seven miles, 88 miles, 89 miles... Each mile took an eternity, each mile was uncomfortable from a fatigue angle, as well as a cramping muscle perspective. My total average power had dropped- 300w exactly over the entire effort. For me to maintain a 300w average overall I had to do the last part of the work at no less than 300w. I had nowhere to retreat. I continued desperately trying to keep the first digit displayed on my computer a '3'. It was hard. My legs on the verge of constant uprising at every significant effort. The mile marker hit 90. My total average power was still at 300w. I knew that I had hit the day's limit of what I could do at my target output. I was done. It was over. I had fallen at the 90th mile. Theo pulled over, he helped peel my cramped body off of my machine (ingeniously suggesting that I more or less keep still and raise my foot slightly as he tilted the bile almost horizontal on the floor and took it from under me). I had not hit my goal.
In total, I'd done 90 miles with an average power of 300w. I had been on the road 3:33 and had a left:right power split of 50:50% (explains why both legs cramped in exactly the same location at more or less the same time). My average speed on this day had been 25.4mph/41kmph. In the last 33 minutes of the effort I had averaged 274w, for the preceding 3 hours I had average 304w- a precipitous drop-off.
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