The Cycle of Life

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

80 Miles on a Unicycle (an Incomplete Century)

I set out this past Sunday to ride my 2nd full Century. I made it 80% of the way.

I rode my only complete C in 2003. Last year, I had 89 miles under my belt when I had to stop due to a really bad case of saddle soreness. Basically my cheeks looked like Kris Kringle's. I was determined not to let that happen again.

This ride starts at 6 am at the northern end of Central Park, but I took off earlier than that in order to avoid the rush and mainly to give myself a better chance of finishing by 6 pm, when the ride comes to an official end.

I donned two pairs of padded cycle shorts and slathered on enough chamois butter for three people. I reapplied the butter thruout the day, and as a result, I suffered no friction pain during or after the ride. I do, however, have a better understanding of the term 'numbnuts.'

It was a lovely sunny day -- too lovely, in fact, which is how I found myself terribly dehydrated midway thru -- so I was glad that I'd remembered sun block and that the stuff still worked. I applied some when the sun finally showed up at about 7:30 and then again a few hours later. I am not sure how much sunlight can filter thru the slats of my helmet, but I didn't want to end up looking like a zebra-head.

That's not a quick pace, but including breaks, and given how little training and general riding I'd done in the previous 12 months, I was happy with how things started for me. My breaks totaled about 40 minutes by mile 30, but while I was on the unicycle, I had been maintaining a 13.1-mph pace, which is quite fast given the frequent slow-downs and stops along this ride. I mainly stayed in high gear this time since last year's ride produced a catastrophic fall when the unicycle didn't shift gears properly, pretty much ending my ride (along with the raw bum cheeks).

I figured that I had 9 hours to complete the next 70 miles, an easy enough task. I'd felt good riding the 13 miles from my mom's apartment building (81st St off Central Park, Manhattan) to rest stop #1 (Prospect Park, Brooklyn). I felt pretty good riding from there to rest stop #2, 17 miles later. Unfortunately, the ride organizers had shortened the space between stops #2 and #3 without adding an addition stop between #3 and #4. This meant that riders had a 30-mile gap before the next big stop (Kissena Park, Queens). And after another hour of riding, I didn't think I'd ever make it that far.

It didn't help that we had a strong breeze blowing in our faces for most of the Queens segment of the ride. The bikers complained about it, too, but they acknowledged that I probably had it worse because my sitting position (on a unicycle) makes me much less aerodynamic than they are. There were plenty of times where, because of the wind and my exhaustion, I rode in low gear at about 6-8 miles an hour.

At some point I finally realized that my muscles were screaming for more water and more electrolytes, but at the time I just felt like I had lost all of my energy. When it dawned on me that I was dehydrated, I started drinking a lot more from my backpack hydration system, nearly emptying its recently-replenished 70-oz bladder. This meant that from that point on, I frequently had to stop in order to empty my own (less-than-70 oz) bladder, and since the organizers had forgotten to include even one portable toilet between rest stops, I invented quite a few of my own. Sorry, Queens.

I stopped frequently between mile 40 and mile 50, and pretty soon I had most of the gas back in my proverbial tank. During my recovery period of about two hours, I wasn't able to maintain more than 12 mph and at some points had to put the uni into low gear, but after about two hours, I was back to about 80% strength, able to keep up with some of the slower-paced bikers for long stretches.

At this point, it actually helped that I got lost. I had been riding with a pack of about 20 bikers. Whenever we came to a busy intersection, I managed to weave thru the traffic before the rest of my pack; I've been good at reading traffic ever since I began serious uni commuting 10 years ago. The peloton would pass me between stop lights, and then I'd catch up to them, zig and zag thru the cars, and get ahead once more. At about mile 50, I was feeling strong, and as I approached the group waiting for the light, I jokingly announced, "I'm making my move!" as I crossed against the light once again. By the time I looked back, I realized that I'd missed a turn (probably at that light). I was either going to have to find my way back to the course (impossible, since I didn't have a map), return to the spot where I'd gone off course (perhaps adding an additional mile to my ride), or I could ride straight to Kissena Park (rest stop #3), which I discovered was just two miles away. I opted to shorten this part of my ride, and I arrived at the 60-mile rest stop after riding just 53 miles. It was about 11:30 am.

I was more than halfway thru the 100-mile mark in under half the time, but I began to admit to other riders that it was very unlikely that I'd complete the full Century. Pathetically, I managed only 27 more miles in the remaining 4.5 hours.

After Kissena Park, I set out for the Astoria Park rest stop about 20 miles away. I was feeling better thanks to all the water and electrolytes I was consuming, but I still needed to take breaks just to get some blood flow back into my groin. Because of the long pauses I'd had to take earlier on, I arrived at the final stop -- mile 81 or so for everyone else, mile 74 for me -- too late to have a good shot at finishing 100 miles by 6 pm. I chatted with two guys who were riding a tandem (same ratio of rider to wheel as me, I pointed out, but apparently they still had an easier time), and eventually we all headed off.

This last little stretch (of about 5 miles) stupidly involves a bridge that has an incomplete biking section which forces riders to carry their cycles up and down several series of steps. I have no idea why Transportation Alternatives continues to use this bridge on the route, but it was the final nail in the coffin for my Century chances since it slowed us all down as, like little ants carrying grasshoppers to the anthill, we all made our way across the span. Last year it happened to be worse -- there were more of us trying to cross at the time -- but it still took over 10 minutes to get across about a mile of space. I arrived at the finish line, having ridden 78 miles, at 5 pm. I briefly considered pedaling around the park at least once more, to add 5 miles to my trip, but I decided to call it a day and head back to my car, 2+ miles away. It wasn't 100 miles, but I was happy with the ride, especially considering my lack of preparation, the heavy wind for about 20 miles, and my ability to fight back after that dehydration.

I took a strong hot shower (my mom's apartment building has firehouse-power water pipes thanks to old plumbing) and remembered that same experience last year when I could barely tolerate even the coolest mild drip on my ruby-red cheeks. Soon I was driving back to New Paltz, feeling fine. Later that night, I awoke with a weird pain in my wonky left knee, but it went away by the following morning. I have only one muscle that's even slightly sore: my left bicep (!) from holding the extention on my uni. For the first time after a ride over 80 miles, I was able to ride a unicycle the next day.


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