Back from the Lobster!
I'm back, and almost fully recovered, from the Lobster, the 5-day race across Nova Scotia.
My team, the Centurions, was made up of three riders with over 100 years of unicycling experience. As the youngest of the group, at 41, I rated only 28 years of riding (ok, 27 if you subtract that year when I neglected to bring my uni to Australia -- what a mistake!). John Foss, 46, is the past prez of the Unicycling Society of America and owner of dozens of unicycles. He has been riding since about 1976, tho there were a few years in the beginning when he didn't devote most of his waking moments to one-wheeling it. Dave White, at 52, is the grandpa among the three of us (literally -- his son's wife is expecting her first child). He's been riding since 1966, several months before I was born. But it's not like we were old geezers participating in a youngun's race. All three of us have won countless medals at unicycle conventions including a bunch of them for 10K marathons.
We had never ridden together as a team until the race actually started. In fact, our idea for the team came together on the last evening of last summer's NAUCC. We communicated a bit by phone and wrote a volley of emails from March till June, and that was the best we could do. John, from Sacramento, had slightly better weather to play with, but Dave and I had to wait for some snow to melt before we could really begin training. I did try uni'ing in place, but that idea didn't really take hold after I nearly smashed the window behind the treadmill; shortly after that attempt, the weather improved enough for training so I didn't give it another thought.
John's wife, Jacquie, generously volunteered to drive our support minivan for the trip. She has almost no unicycling experience, but she was invaluable in helping us stay well-fed and hydrated. She also assisted with driving, but perhaps most importantly, she served as look-out when we were about to swap riders. Her platinum blond hair was visible for miles and was a welcoming beacon to any tired rider on our team.
I mainly trained on my 29" Schlumpf guni. Dave actually has two of them. John tried out various unis before deciding to bring an ungeared Coker. He didn't feel that he was ready to ride the geared 36" uni that he'd been trying out, but I would have loved a chance to try one out. How did I let the whole Lobster go by without even trying someone's geared 36?
I made time to ride at least 13 miles a day or to attack a very tall mountain road. There is nothing special about 13 miles -- that's just how far it was round-trip to the end of my rail trail and back to my daughter's pre-school. I would gladly have taken longer rides, but the all-gravel trail oddly ended in the middle of a bridge. I'd often add to the milage by taking a diversion along a paved road with few cars. This pretty trail ran alongside a river and afforded me the opportunity to ride about 16 mph (25-26 kph) on a flat path. I also worked out on the bike path in New York's Central Park, a loop of almost exactly 10 kilometers which I would usually circle two or three times. On several occasions I rode up a local mountain path instead. This ride was, thru sheer accident, an almost exact replica of the uphill section of the Lobster's Mt Kelley, the tremendous spike on our Day-5 contour maps that looked like a shark fin jutting out of a bathtub. As a result of my training, I felt prepared for this last ascent -- in theory. In practice, it was a different matter since this climb came at the end of our final day.
Dave White's training was quite impressive: He rode at least 10 miles a day for about six weeks straight. Occasionally he rode as far as 20 miles in a day. John, meanwhile, put in many hours on several of his unicycles. He mainly worked out on an ungeared Coker but occasionally toyed around with a geared version; in the end, because he was flying from California and didn't want to lug two unis, he took over only the ungeared Coker on which he'd done most of his training.
I made it with no problem from New Paltz to Portland, ME. OK, there was a major accident on the road at one point, but I waited it out by shutting off the car and reading for awhile. The next morning, I boarded the ferry: The CAT, as it's called. It's an amazing boat, featuring several large dining areas, three screening areas for first- (or second-) run movies, and a gambling spot with about three dozen slot machines. I mainly busied myself watching "The Bourne Ultimatum," a surprisingly good flick, tho I considered heading to the kids' section to watch "Ratatouille" and some good cartoons. The ride takes about 4.5 hours and was quite restful.
At about 2pm on Sunday,I arrived at the Yarmouth ferry terminal, virtually the last racer to show up since most people had gotten there at least a day in advance of the registration. My teammates were busy, so I had to schlepp my two unis, a backpack, and two small duffel bags about a half-mile north towards our hotel. I managed this by riding the 29" and pushing the Coker while shouldering the other stuff; it wasn't fun. I registered and discovered that I'd somehow been left off the list for the free jerseys that all the riders and support drivers were getting, but happily, Jacquie's was too small, so she gave hers to me (I'm hoping she gets one soon). Once settled into the hotel room I was sharing with Dave, my team headed out to a nice dinner at a nearby restaurant.
DAY 1 -- Monday
One of the rules of the ride was that there was to be no switching of riders for at least the first 10K of every morning (to prevent supprt-vehicle congestion). We decided to take turns starting each day, and for some reason, I ended up going first. I was excited and nervous, but both of those feelings gave way to pain when the rider in front of me fell down at the start and caused me to trip over him. I came down on my feet, straddling our little pile of unicycles, but I must have landed funny because I managed to smack the tip of my penis on one of the unicycles during the exchange. I immediately hopped back onto my uni and pedaled furiously to catch up to the head of the pack, the pain diminishing with each rider I passed. It was also lovely to see our first bunch of organized onlookers as we passed a local school, where the kids had come outside to watch us ride by and to cheer us on. Seeing people along the route -- especially school-kids -- was one of the best parts of the whole experience for a lot of us.
We figured that we'd each ride about 10K at the start of the first day, but I suggested that I take us at least 15K before the first exchange. That way, we could avoid the crowd while putting a bit of distance between us and some of the other groups. I rode about 20K and was exhausted and thrilled to see my team when it was time for our first transition. We tended to ride 10K (6 mile) stints on the first day. Since we were riding such lengthy distances, we didn't need to make our transitions too tidy (tho we did a good job anyway), but we got the hang of them pretty early on, and by Thursday, we were able to swap out riders every 3 or 4 kilometers if necessary. On at least two occasions, we swapped after just 2K on a huge hill.
We knew that weather would be an issue; the forecast for Nova Scotia showed a lot of moisture, so we were quite pleasantly surprised when it didn't rain on Monday. We actually needed sunscreen that day! Dave had brought along his amazing Garmin GPS that shows up-to-date weather radar, and we could see that a wet patch was heading our way the next day. Sure enough, we were rained on for most of Tuesday and absolutely soaked by torrential rain the first part of Wednesday. Thursday was partly cloudy with spotty rain, and Friday was much like Monday's lovely weather, only with a bit of cloud cover.
END of DAY 1
We rode all-out and were never able to get a sense of where we were within the pack except that it felt like we were among the top teams. when John Foss crossed the finish line for us that day, we were quite pleased to discover that we were in 9th place, with 8-minute gaps on either side of us. That spacing, it only occurred to me now, was equal to about 2 miles, but that explains why we stayed in 9th place after a few problems we had on Tuesday.
I had heard ahead of the race that 16 teams had designated themselves as possible top-10 finishers before the race began. It was great to find that we'd gauged ourselves correctly. I was proud of our team of older men, and I wasn't nearly as sore as I would have expected. Nor were any of us too tired. We had a filling dinner that night where we loaded up with pasta, and Dave and I went to sleep just before midnight in order to get up around 6:30 the next morning. Just before bed, I shave my legs below the knees, as I'd promised I'd do if we finished among the top ten. Guys, if you ever decide to shave your legs, be forewarned: It takes much longer than you'd think!
FAVORITE Moment of Day 1
At one point, we found ourselves racing on a long gravel road. I mentioned that this was just like what I'd trained on in New Paltz (on the rail trail) and that I'd be very comfortable riding quickly on the long downhill stretch. Dave started the uphill part and I relieved him and noticed that Signe, a 17-year-old Danish girl from one of the top teams was not far in front of me. I caught up just as we crested the hill and raced past her as my teammates saw a cloud of dust erupt from under my wheel. Later I noticed that I'd reached 35.6 kph, or just over 22 mph; this would turn out to be the fastest speed I'd reach on the trip and was probably the fastest I'd ever ridden on a unicycle. The fact that it was on dry and uneven gravel made it even more fun. It was a wild ride that felt a lot like waterskiing.
DAY 2 -- Tuesday
We experienced a few technical difficulties during the race, but all of them took place on Tuesday, and luckily none of them cost us too much time. I think that we lost less than 5 minutes over the course of the entire race. Ironically, one of our problems was that we'd lent a unicycle to another team whose members were missing TWO of theirs! One of the lovely things about the uni'ing community is the way we look out for each other.
At one point early in the day, Dave realized that he should try different crank arms in order to increase his speed. Normally this isn't a big deal, but somehow one of the cranks got loose. Amazingly, this happened just as I had switched on one of our walkie-talkies that my brother had lent me for the ride. Dave had brought a set, too. We both reckoned that in the event of an emergency, it would be really handy to get in contact with a teammate in the car. Somehow Dave's crank got loose the one time he'd remembered to bring a walkie-talkie and the one time I'd remembered to turn mine on. Just as luckily, we were behind him a bit at the time, so we quickly drove up to meet him and I grabbed the GPS baton while he and John worked on the crank. They caught up with me later, and then the same thing happened, but with John's crank. Again I rode as they fixed the problem, but I didn't have to go too far before they relieved me.
This day was hillier than the first one, and it was also a bit lengthier. We'd arrived just before 6pm at Monday's finishing point, but it took us almost a whole extra hour to make it to the finish on Tuesday.
FAVORITE Moments of Day 2:
There were some funny moments on the trip, and most of them seemed to have happened on Day 2.
1. Early in the day, before the rain started, John, Jacquie and I were in the support van as Dave rode ahead. We were having a bit of trouble navigating with the GPS, so we looked on the road for the familiar orange arrows, but there weren't any at one intersection. I announced, "I don't see anything orange telling us where to go," and John replied, "I do. I see something orange telling us where to go!" It was Darren Bedford, the Canadian inventor of Flaming Puck (unicycle hockey using a puck that's on fire), wearing an orange shirt and waving us to the right.
2. At another point, while I was driving I noticed a big turtle in the road. I stopped the car and got out, but I was nervous about the turtle because it was so large, and I got more nervous when John mentioned that this might be a snapping turtle. I gave the plate-sized reptile a gentle prod with my foot, and the thing lunged at me (as only a turtle can lunge) and tried to bite before waving an angry foot at me. If turtles could hiss, this one would have done so. Eventually one of the EMT volunteers was able to persuade Yurtle to mosey across the road safely.
3. That night we went to a restaurant where I tried my first lobster (despite going to camp in Maine for 8 years!). I had to take a phone call at one point, and as I headed outside for a moment, I heard one waitress tell another a comment you'd never hear outside of Nova Scotia: "We're running low on the fettucini. Push the lobster!"
It was also great to see so many school kids waving and cheering us on. Some of them yelled, "Where are you from?" to each rider and then cheered loudly when they got a response.
DAY 3: Wednesday at the Races
This was the one day we got to sleep late -- as late as about 7:15. Calgon, take me away!
After the fairly hilly and quite-lengthy Tuesday, our third day was a reprieve. We didn't mind the extra 45 minutes of sleep, and tho the weather threatened (and then delivered) a good deal of rain, we would only be riding in it for 45-50 minutes, so it wasn't too bad.
This was the day of the time trial and the 'criterium.' As in the Tour de France, each rider began the time trial a half-minute behind the rider in front of him. Our placement in the trial was based on our team finish. As my team's fastest rider, I went last among the three of us with only 8 riders behind me (that is, I was the 97th rider). I got off to a good start and quickly passed many riders in my grouping and even a few of the riders who had started much earlier, and I was passed by most of the riders from the faster teams behind me, like Ken Looi, who blew past me on his ungeared 36"er and wound up in 3rd place over all. The rain at some points was pelting down so hard that it was hurting my eyeballs. I managed to finish a very respectable 20th or 21st place (they were seconds apart), covering 21K (about 14 miles) in just under 56 minutes. This time qualified me for the top heat of the criterium in Truro that afternoon. But before that short race, we had to drive nearly two hours to get there.
I wanted to blast straight ahead for Truro, but John was aching with hunger and our clothes and shoes were soaked, so we decided to stop in a town called Bedford for crepes and a visit to a laundromat. The meal was delicieux and tres francais, and the laundromat hit the spot, too! Pressed for time, we had no time to wash our clothes. Opening the drier after three men's shirts and sneakers have spun around in the heat for 40 minutes was perhaps the most unpleasant thing we had to endure for the entire trip.
The rain stopped and we soon found ourselves in Truro, a lovely place with a college-town feel. As was the case thruout the Lobster, there was something about Truro that reminded me a lot of Ulster County. It's a much bigger town than New Paltz, but it had a similar feel to Rhinebeck. We caught up with some of the other teams and wound up having dinner with Team Smile (who would eventually finish in 5th place). This team featured Chuck, perhaps the world's fastest long-distance rider at the moment. Not only had he won the Time Trial, but he would soon finish first in the 4-mile race (6 laps around a few city blocks) that we called the Criterium, netting himself $1000 and another one of Florian Schlumpf's priceless (ok, not priceless -- just 'pricey') geared hubs. Again I did pretty well for a geezer-in-training, finishing among the top 25. My team took a conservative approach to this short race. We knew we had no chance to win, so we made sure to ride safely to ensure that we wouldn't get hurt.
FAVORITE Moments of Day 3:
Certainly those crepes rank right up there, much as the laundry was simply rank. I loved waving to the school kids who had come out to see the start of the time trial.
DAY 4 -- Thursday
Relatively well-rested after Wednesday's relatively light demands, we found ourselves once again waking early and riding in some rain. By now it had become apparent who the eventual winning teams were going to be (German Speeders, followed by NZUNI of New Zealand) as well as which teams were our closest competition for the top ten. At this point, we had to watch for:
* the Hans Islanders team (featuring two Danes, Tomas and Signe, as well as an American) who had leapt ahead of several teams in climbing from 12th to 8th place,
* the Korean Dream team, who had gotten off to a similarly weak start and were making gains on us, and
* Nathan and Beau Hoover, the father-and-son team who were going duo because their third teammate had been barred from entering Halifax airport due to a DUI 9 years earlier.
In addition, Team Manly Legs, Atlas, and The Goonies were further back of us but were within reach if we had any sort of major problems.
The Korean team and the Hoovers were our biggest threats, however, because both appeared to be gaining on us, and because both appeared to have a good deal of stamina. But Nathan Hoover was beginning to feel some pains in one of his Achilles tendons (after all, he was riding about 50% than everyone except his son!), and by the end of the day, their team was still about a quarter hour behind us. The Dream Team, however, started the day about 8 minutes back and ended only 90 seconds behind us. I think that most of their catching-up was on account of The Fangs!
When we looked over the topographical profile of the day, we saw what appeared to be four upwards-pointing fangs near the end of the ride. Each of these involved a fairly low but quite steep climb, rising about 50 meters in just a few hundred meters, times four! We decided to break up these nasty hills so that no one had to ride more than one in a row, but since these came near the end of the day, we were so exhausted that we began running our transitions every 2-3 kilometers, rather than the usual 6-8 K segments we'd usually ride. I think that two of my rides were just under 2K.
The coolest thing of the day was when we passed thru one of the major transition points where each rider was given a brown paper bag beautifully designed by an elementary schooler. I saved mine, which features a red lobster and many encouraging words from the several children who collaborated on the item. Inside each bag were some treats for us racers, including apple juice and a choco chip cookie! Those cookies really hit the spot after an exhausting day.
That night we spent the evening resting in a gorgeous college dorm where students have private shower stalls and wonderful two-person rooms. I took a lengthy shower and tried to massage my sore left anterior (top) tendon, the one right below where you'd tie your left shoe. This tendon was so creaky that you could actually hear it if I raised and lowered my foot. I used the two-I method: ice and ibuprofen, and I also applied a lotion that causes a warm sensation. I was nervous that I wouldn't be of much use to my team for the final day, but I noticed that my ankle felt better as the evening wore on.
DAY 5 -- TGIF!
Our last day was possibly the easiest of the four long days. Not only was the distance a mere 187 kilometers (or about 116 miles), but there was a break built into it on account of a transition that called for each team to drive over a long bridge that was too dangerous for unicycling.
The day started weirdly when I realized -- just after we'd all begun pedaling furiously -- that I'd neglected to gear up. In other words, I was going to have to shift as soon as I could, but (a) there were riders all around me, so I couldn't risk falling and having someone land on me, and (b) I had had no luck shifting for most of the race. The good news was that I did manage to shift as soon as the crowd had thinned out a bit, but by then, the rider for the Korean team had built up a sizable lead. In fact, I never saw him again on that ride -- he'd pulled out too far ahead for me to catch him. I sensed that our hopes of 10th place were dashed.
John took over after my initial ride of 15 K. I was pretty exhausted, but happily my ankle/shin area wasn't too sore or creaky. I massaged the area and applied heat lotion while John and Dave rode, and then I was at it again. This day's profile was rather peculiar: For the most part, it was extremely flat, but near the end was a steep uphill followed immediately by a steep downhill. After that, the ride was flat to the finish. Essentially, the profile looked like a shark fin in a bathtub.
THREE GREAT SEGMENTS
1. Because there were so few nasty uphills, I could ride longer stretches without hurting my foot or getting too tired, and as it turned out, I ended up riding about 87 of the 187 kilometers that day. There was also a gravel stretch, and since I love gravel flats and downhills, I was put on the uni for a lengthy stretch of it. As it happened, we had been closing in on the Korean Dream Team, and as I took the baton from Dave, I noticed that the same man who had bested me at the start of that day's riding was now just a few hundred meters ahead of me. He was riding an ungeared Coker with short cranks. This uni gave him an advantage only on the inclines. Any downhills or flats would be chances for me to catch up. Just as I crested one little hill, I saw him fall off his uni not more than 2 city-blocks ahead of me. He still had me by a decent margin, but in his haste to remount, he fell off again. By this time, I zoomed past him, but I expected to see him in my helmet mirror soon. Instead, I never saw his team -- neither the riders nor the support vehicle -- for the rest of the day. In fact, now that I think about it, I never saw them again even after the race, which was too bad because I wanted to congratulate them on doing such a good job.
2. The shark fin was called Mt Kelly, and it involved a climb of 250 meters over 2 kilometers followed by a 3 kilometer descent back to sea level. The three of us took turns riding up the mountain, which found us uni'ing alongside drivers on a wide highway, and then I took over for the lengthy downhill. I managed to keep up a pace of 30.0 kph, or just under 19 mph, for the entire duration of the descent, and I even managed to pass a rider on the way down. I've never ridden that fast for so long, and tho I did hit a top speed of 35 kph, I never outshone my speed on the gravel downhill. Still, it was incredible to feel the speed of that mountain for such a long ride.
3. I was also fortunate enough to ride the very last segment as the team came into a small town. The last of the highway riding came with a stiff back-wind, giving me the feeling that I was somehow stronger by day's end, and the ride into town was mostly downhill and straight, allowing me to maintain an almost scary pace as I headed across the finish line.
Much later we found out that the Korean team somehow lost 21 minutes on us, finishing 12th over all. We'd managed to hold on to 10th place by just 8 minutes over Beau and Nathan. Whew! And it would only be 10 days before I could ride a unicycle again without pain.