My first century (Ottawa-Iola-Ottawa via Prairie Spirit)

October 7, 2012

In a blog post from 5 weeks ago I said:

The dreams I have in mind [over the next couple years] would have been unimaginable to me 2, 3 years ago; and even now they are monumental and difficult to reach; but that’s exactly what dreams should be.

That certainly applies to a goal I set in early May of this year.  Following my first successful Ottawa-Iola-Ottawa ride (over two days) on the Prairie Spirit Trail, I concluded my writeup with this:

Prairie Spirit retains a very warm place in my heart, and I hope to return for this full route again very soon.  I’m making it an official, stated goal to ride the FULL trail (roughly 100-120 miles depending upon the progress of the planned extensions) within a single day sometime in 2012.

At the time I wrote that, I did intend for it to be a real goal, something I was really shooting for; but it’s fair to say that at the time it seemed nearly inconceivable to me to be able to do it. I’m delighted to say the big day has arrived and I was able to check this one off my list, netting my first full century ride in the meantime.

Meteorological necessity was the mother of urgency.  While I would have loved to get fitter for another 6 weeks before attempting this, the days are getting shorter and colder all the time.  I’m not the fastest rider; I average around 12 MPH rolling (maybe less on the PS Trail) and less than that with breaks, so a 100-mile round trip including breaks and lunch spans most of the daylight hours.  In addition, most of the trailheads along the route actually close in mid-October i.e. in the next couple weeks.  So with my planned Katy Trail ride next week, this was going to be more or less my last chance to do this in 2012.

As with my first trip, I told very few folks about my plans prior to leaving because of the decent probability of failure. I began to watch the weekend weather forecasts a few days ago and Saturday was shaping up nicely.  It turned out to be colder than I expected, but the rain that drifted into and out of the 5-day forecast stayed away.

In the past couple days I’d drawn up my fueling plan in terms of what I needed to bring, exactly which trailheads to fuel up and in what ways (Perpetuem, Hammer Gel, supplemented with Endurolytes and armed with 2 packs peanut butter crackers).  I’d reviewed and re-reviewed this fueling schedule from various perspectives and feel confident in it, so I wrote down the stop-by-stop instructions for what to take so as to minimize confusion on the bike and brought this with me.  As they say, first you plan the work, then you work the plan.

I headed out from my house at around 6:30 AM to ride the one mile, in town, to the Ottawa depot, the conventional start of the trail.  I was wearing not only leggings, which I first broke out on this ride, but also for the first time since spring, a long-sleeve shirt.  It was around 35 degrees.

The plan was very simple and straightforward.  Roll into Iola by 12:30 or so (5 hours rolling time plus an hour or so of breaks, stopping briefly at each trailhead for hydration, restroom, fueling as needed etc). Eat a modest lunch at Pizza Hut (love that Iola Pizza Hut) for around 45 minutes, then start back.  Probably make it back a little slower since I’d be more tired, so maybe 6.5-7 hours of clock time for the return.  This would put me back in Ottawa somewhere around 7:30 or 8 PM – if I was fortunate, with a little daylight left.

The first 25 miles were knocked out strong.  Stopped briefly at Princeton and my beloved Richmond (always have fond feelings for this trailhead after my first adventure chronicled here) and up into my “adopted hometown” (I swear I will move here one day) of Garnett.  This is just a charming little town which I always absolutely love to ride to or through on the bike.  Stopped at the train depot there, took care of things in a workmanlike way and kept rolling feeling very strong.  I was cognizant of putting time in the bank to buffer the slower return leg that was likely to ensue.

Next was the roughly 8 miles to Welda.  I’ve ridden various distances on the trail many times now, and been to Welda maybe 4-5 times, and I swear, this 8 miles is the Bermuda Triangle.  This HAS to be the most misleading 8 miles on the entire trail.  It has never once felt to me like “only 8 miles” – it seems to go on and on.  The fact that much of it is fairly steep (relative to the PST as a whole) is certainly part of it; but it is less dramatic elevation change than Richmond-to-Garnett and somehow seems to be much tougher.  I’m not sure why.

Anyway, made it into Welda starting to really look forward to lunch and already have some pangs of doubt about my plan.  I could turn back here and turn in a very credible 65ish mile ride.  Going on to Colony, which would put me a mere 10 miles from Iola, and then turning back would seem just silly; so if I was to bail out, here was the time.  I pressed on, determined to see the plan through.

I worked my way through the trailheads in Colony and Carlyle.  In the latter I was delighted to see an abandoned wasp nest on a small bush near the restroom.  When I was a little kid I used to find & collect these abandoned nests and always found them very cool.  I got a picture of this one.

Made it into Iola roughly 12 noon (didn’t note the exact time).  I’d made good time with a roughly 12 MPH rolling average and approximately an hour worth of stops.  In Iola my phone battery died – long story – so the full 100-mile trip which I’d hoped to capture on Endomondo was abbreviated to 52 miles.  This also meant no Pandora for the entire return ride.

Doubling back north-bound off the trail to ride the 1/4 mile to Pizza Hut, I noted a respectable (and cold) wind hitting me from the north and west.  This was going to be against me on the return, particularly in the open areas in the first 18 or so miles.  Wasn’t relishing that thought.  After knocking out my lunch in a contented but very tired sort of daze, it was time to get going again. I was pretty tired and gave serious thought to staying the night in Iola and returning the next day, but for various reasons I chose to just continue with my mission.

The return ride was considerably tougher on me than the first half. For one, I was obviously more tired. Two, being now phoneless, I had no Pandora to occupy my thoughts, which for me means my entire mental experience is filled with “wow, I am tired…wow I still have a long way to go…man it’s cold out here…man this ground seems softer than when I rode up here…man, this is a tough challenge” etc.  Time can draw out like a blade, to quote Shawshank Redemption.  And not least, it was in fact colder out than I anticipated.  Granted that I’d been studying the forecast, but I underestimated the effect of it staying VERY overcast all day long – the sun never truly came out – and that, combined with riding in sub-40 degree temps for most of the first half and then the cold headwind for the return when it was above 40 and below 50, meant I never really warmed up.  This was to be a constant test the entire way back.

The return for me is somewhat of a blur, and was certainly slower-going than the first half.  I needed many more small breaks to regather my energy, and I coasted for a couple tire revolutions every several minutes. For stretches I was feeling vaguely nauseous, which I attributed to my stomach working through all that I’d dumped in it – a couple portions of Perpetuem, a few Hammer Gels, lots of water, and now Pizza Hut cheese-bread which it was working through.  All this while constantly pedaling on fairly jarring terrain.  My body was serving my demands as best it could, but it registered some complaints.

I again stopped at each trailhead, and continued following my fueling plan.  At some point (I think at Colony) my stomach started to ask for some more solid food, and I obliged with a few PB crackers. My bike & I took shelter from the cold wind in the bare-minimal Colony restroom, harkening back to my refuge in the luxurious-by-comparison Richmond restroom on my April trip.  At Richmond on today’s ride, I also again took refuge in there, locking the restroom behind me & my bike and running the hand warmer a couple times to warm up.

I began to work out a plan of eating a couple PB crackers at each trailhead through my return to Ottawa, which I did, plus a couple at an unscheuled stop or two.  This helped with evening out my stomach, obliging it with some solid food, and keeping fuel stores supplied.  80% of the ride from Iola to Ottawa consisted of finding a balancing act between taking in enough fuel to keep myself going through the second half of the ride, versus trying not to cavalierly continue dumping stuff into my stomach which already was under siege.  It was a give-and-take that never became easy but in retrospect I’m quite satisfied with my handling of it.

Another consequence of being phoneless was that it added to the feeling of being out of time and out of the world.  There are no clocks at the trailheads, and with the poor weather, I saw less than half a dozen folks on the trail all day long.  I distinctly remember thinking during my April ride that I might as well have been riding a cycling trail on Mars, as out-of-the-world as I felt, and this day was exactly the same.  No measure of time, not seeing anyone for miles, not seeing or hearing traffic or the “real world” for long stretches – it was a strange experience.  The fact that the entire day was heavily overcast meant that I couldn’t accurately guesstimate time of day from the sky.  I had to roughly guess at each trailhead how much daylight I had.  Particularly as the end neared, this became another source of, not panic but certainly discomfort, as my slower pace made it seem inevitable I’d need to make some choices regarding dark riding versus highway finish.

The “darkest miles” of the ride for me were the roughly 18 from Iola to Welda.  This was where I was battling the nausea/fuel dilemma; much of this section is on ascending grade; and there was generally little to lift my spirits.  At Welda a little spark of life and enthusiasm entered just as I was setting off toward Garnett, as I realized I had put in right around 70 miles – my longest ride to date.  Still a long, long way to go, though – 32 miles left.

At around Garnett (halfway from Iola to Ottawa) my energy and my spirits picked up a little more.  I began to glimpse the finish.  I was 75% of the way through the ride and was well on the way to prevailing in the fuel/nausea tightrope I’d been walking.  Judging from the sky, I thought there was about a 90% probability it’d be dark before I reached home, but I wanted to at least reach Princeton prior to then, when I could pop out on 59 Highway to finish the 9 miles home, a stretch I’ve ridden perhaps dozens of times.

For much of the ride home, through the challenging (to me) conditions, I was employing various strategies I’d read in cycling writings and particularly randonneuring writeups – one of which is, just tick off the miles and the landmarks.  Having no access to my exact mileage, I couldn’t tick off mileage; but I could focus on just reaching the next trailhead strong, following my fueling strategy there, and moving on.  Richmond was up next, where as mentioned earlier I took a few minutes to warm up with the hand-dryer in the nicest restrooms on the trail.  For a minute or two earlier this day, I’d actually considered taking a short nap here on the way back if I got tired enough.

Leaving Richmond I felt stronger still than I had in Garnett.  I was more tired, but could definitely smell the finish now.  These were “my towns” – I’ve ridden to or through Princeton and Richmond many times on the trail, and Garnett a number of times also.  It’s much more “familiar” and comforting to me than the more-foreign stops at Welda and especially Colony, Carlyle and Iola.

Just ~7 miles to Princeton, at which point, I kept reminding myself, I could hop onto the highway if needed, or if I stayed on the trail, the 9 miles from Princeton to Ottawa are pretty easy, the opposite of the long ascent you have at ride’s beginning if you’re traveling south from Ottawa.

By a couple miles outside Princeton, I realized the daylight hadn’t greatly changed in the past hour or two and it started to seem likely that I’d be able to finish before dark.  But it wasn’t till I actually checked out of Princeton, after emptying/mixing in my last drop of fuel, that I actually felt certain that I’d have daylight to reach home.

The final 9 miles were mercifully pretty easy on me.  I was certainly tired, but the gradual downhill grade combined with the fact that I could now aggressively knock out my remaining fuel gave me wings to finish.  I kept reminding myself of how big a challenge I’d posed to myself and what an accomplishment this was for someone who not very long ago rarely rode more than 20 miles at a stretch.  At each trailhead – for example, Princeton, I’d remind myself “Man, I’ve already gone more than 90 miles today.”  Reminding myself of the hurdles I’d already overcome helped me at once to continue as well as provided some comfort to me, some permission to myself, to be as tired as I was feeling.

I did return to Ottawa with some daylight left.  I felt triumphant leaving behind the gravel for the final paved couple miles of the trail.  The northerly/northwesterly headwind had died down considerably, so that I had smooth riding for the couple paved miles back to the house.  I arrived home roughly 7:15 PM, about 12.5 hours after I’d started pedaling that morning. Texted friends and family, hit the shower, and grabbed a celebratory dinner.

Now I’ll take a deserved few days off the bike to rest up and prepare for my major cycling-related goal of 2012 – the Katy Trail.  We set out for that on Wednesday morning.

Post-ride thoughts and “plus/delta”:

  • I’m really glad I wrote down the town-by-town fueling schedule.  This helped minimize confusion on the bike, which most definitely would have vexed me on the second half.  It became an instruction manual: “I prepared this in advance and checked it many times, so I just need to do this and not overthink it”.  I will duplicate the logic of this on the Katy Trail.  On the same paper I’d written down the town-by-town stops on the PS Trail and their mileage from one another, courtesy again the wonderful website bikeprairiespirit.com.  I’ve ridden the trail many times and know the mileage by heart; but I suspected that as the ride wore on, I would welcome the freedom to just glance at a paper and know where I stood versus trying to work out the math, and I was correct.  I’ll also do the same on the Katy.
  • The phone battery dying was obviously not awesome.  More could be said here, but suffice to say that the manner in which I use the phone on the Katy will be different, so I expect not to have similar issues there (and of course I’ll be riding with Mr. V).  However, on any future ventures that are really similar to this one, I’ll need to adapt my gear accordingly.
  • I was pretty darn tired on the return.  Again I can forgive myself for this.  It’s my first ever century, and is a full 50% (or very close) longer than my previous top ride which was 70 miles.  I’m also, while losing weight and getting fitter, still not in great shape, so I fully expect that should I attempt this ride again next season (and I plan to, in April or May when the trail is open again), it should be much less difficult on me.
  • Alluded to it just above, but the thought occurred to me a couple times during the ride that it was borderline foolish of me to tackle this challenge.  The Alanis Morissette lyrics to “You Learn” entered my mind somewhere around Richmond:

I recommend biting off more then you can chew to anyone
I certainly do

With my previous best ride of 70 miles – which I’ve only done very recently, only done twice, and which far exceeded my previous best of 55 miles – doing a full century today was definitely borderline biting off more than I could chew.  I say this not so much to scold myself – I felt confident I could do it and I did do it – but to remind myself that future challenges should stretch me but with maybe a little more reasonable increments.

All said and done, I was and am very content and pleased to have knocked out this goal that I set 5 months ago and which seemed almost unimaginable to me at that time.  At the same time I knocked out my first-ever century ride (one of the major benchmarks for any cyclist) and set a new personal daily record for distance.

With the trailheads closing very soon, I don’t anticipate doing any more really long rides on the PST for another 6 months, which really saddens me.  However, it represents another thing to really look forward to with the dawn of the 2013 cycling season.  I’ll definitely plan to do another PST-100 ride in April or May!  Next challenge will be to finish stronger and improve on my total time.

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4 Responses to “My first century (Ottawa-Iola-Ottawa via Prairie Spirit)”

  1. Randy said

    Awesome! Congrats on your first hundee!

  2. Thanks very much Randy!

  3. JD said

    Nice job Bill. 100-miles is a tough go on any trail.

    Sometimes depending on the weather and trail conditions, riding the highway shoulders near the trail is a beneficial option. Of course, all of these shoulders are not upgraded yet. But the ones that are can be lifesavers during those rare adverse times. Another plus feature of this trail.

  4. Thanks man, much appreciated. Definitely hard work for me, but I’ve come a long way. I expect that in April this ride will be, not a piece of cake, but certainly more manageable.

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