The thing about the Natchez Trace 444 is that I almost didn't go. Originally, Bill and I had planned this out as a long, leisurely, almost luxurious family vacation (with a bike race in the middle): heading East we'd visit Joan and Mike and their family, then my daughter on the way to Tennessee. Heading West, we'd get some time with Dennis Johnson and finally Bill's family. I had a crew that was so good that I was considering offering Bill to George as an official. Needless to say, it threw me for a major loop when COVID-19 nixed all of that, and I was seriously considering telling George that I just couldn't do it. And then...I couldn’t say it. I really, really, REALLY wanted to race. So I had to figure out a different path.
Right now I'm working at the Emergency Operations Center - I'm one of the "voices of COVID" for County residents who need help navigating the pandemic. So I know a thing or two about taking precautions. I don't want this virus, and it'd be awful to bring it home to my workgroup. In order to be okay with this I had to do everything I could to avoid exposure:
Instead of my original rockstar crew of three, I downsized to a rockstar crew of one - Bill. Bonus: we were already in each other's bubble.
The riskiest thing we did was flying to and from the race. We decided that was an acceptable risk, but we further slanted the odds in our favor by wearing N95 masks.
I picked accommodations at the start and finish well away from the "host" venues. I know a lot of the folks racing - and I want to meet more of them - but since we'd all traveled through various routes from all different parts of the country I decided to not indulge my social tendencies this time.
Similarly, we skipped the afterparty. This was true sacrifice; George throws a hell of an afterparty, even if it is socially-distanced. I really wanted to be there.
Packing a recumbent for air travel is always an interesting prospect. In this case I managed to get it down to a size (115") and weight (49.9….? pounds) that allowed me to fly it with us for the price of a single checked bag: $30.00 each way. Thank you American Airlines! I packed most of the gear into a cooler, which is a pretty good way to bring things if you fly - you need a cooler anyway. I checked and double-checked the weather before we left to make sure that I had enough layers. I didn't have the luxury of bringing everything - just "enough". Fortunately the weather forecast was for mild temperatures and no rain.
We flew out early Wednesday morning. Everything went smoothly until we went to pick up the rental car in Jackson. They didn't have the VW Atlas we'd reserved. After a bit of futzing around we ended up with a Chevy Tahoe - that'll work just fine; it holds the bike box AND the stuff AND the two of us. We got into Franklin around 10PM - a bit of a drive from Jackson. I wanted to drive up the Trace but it wasn't practical to give up the extra hour's sleep, especially since we'd be driving most of it in the dark. We ended up at the Baymont in Franklin, which turned out to be a psychically good pick.
Thursday - I built up my bike while Bill packed the car. I figured out even more ways to reinstall a recumbent chain wrong! SRAM Eagle masterlinks have a top and a bottom, so since the recumbent chain is about 2-1/2 chains put together, you can install it upside down. While I was doing/redoing this, Bill had an issue with the van: the rear door wouldn't open. This was a suck because we would need to get the bike into the car through the rear door at some point, and also get the giant bike box OUT (it would not fit through the passenger doors). I was trying not to panic because the one consistent theme I've seen with Chevy vehicles is door latch/lockout issues. Options: Call the rental agency? (not great, they would likely want to replace the car that we'd just decorated and half-packed) Call AAA? (they do "lockouts" but we're not - exactly - locked out). Bill decided to take it to a Chevy dealership, which I thought was an astute move, but I was worried about lost time because I still needed to get to a bike shop to pick up a couple of things. So when he was back in literally ten minutes I was pretty impressed. Remember "psychically good pick"? The hotel was across the street from a Chevy dealership, and they showed Bill the button that we'd accidentally pressed that locked the back door.
Next stop: MOAB Bike Shop. Weird name for a bike shop in the middle of Tennessee, but well-stocked and really nice folks - a strong recommendation if you need something for this race. I needed a tire reinflated; I'd dropped the air pressure on my tubeless tires just a little bit too much and lost the bead seat - a quick fix. Quick test ride, grocery shopping, dinner...early to bed. It was weird having little to nothing to do before a big race. I watched a bit of news and felt really good about NOT being stuck at home - wildfires, coronavirus, whatever else - it was going to feel REAL good to be away from it for awhile.
Friday morning, I got up in time to get some coffee in, load up, and hit a smoothie bar on the way to the start. The start line was pretty quiet with folks going off every quarter hour. I got sucked into buying NT444 socks. Hey - they're pretty awesome. My start time was 10:45. I joked around with George and an interpretive ranger for a bit before my start. I wasn't....nervous. Right? Actually, my mind was pretty full - thinking of friends, current events, and whatnot. As I was getting ready to go, I promised myself that I'd not overdo it early - and that I would ride "happy" and enjoy every minute, even if that meant that I had to slow down a bit. I realized how lucky I was to be there - lucky that I'd scored an entry in the first place, lucky that I'd gotten to the start line in such tough times, lucky that Bill was exactly the right person to be here crewing for me, lucky that I was at least moderately trained up for it with all the other crap going on. No way I was going to waste all that good karma with negativity.
And then I was off. The weather was pleasant - high 50's, maybe? And as I rolled along, the mile markers started counting down to zero from...444. You could decide to let that number get into your head, or you could not. I did some of both - broke it down into smaller chunks but never let my focus get too far from the fact that I was riding 444 miles. The first hundred miles or so have more than their fair share of the climbing - and this was my first race on my 1x12 drivetrain - so I was cautious. Overall the climbs are fairly short, though some of them are a little punchy.
The scenery was - well, it was nice. Relaxing. Sweet. Pretty. There weren't breathtaking vistas in particular, just a whole lot of green grass, blue sky, sunshine, and puffy white clouds. The sort of place where you felt like you really COULD ride forever, just flowing through the environment, taking it in. It struck me that I was living the experience that virtual reality was striving for: comfortable temperature, great scenery, good pavement. My clothing, helmet, glasses were all so comfortable that they were insensible. You don't get many days like this. Keep on enjoying it!
Several hours in I started seeing other racers. Race Across Oregon has gotten me used to riding without much contact with other racers, but it's always nice to see folks, especially when you're doing more catching than being caught.
The temperature dropped after dark. As it hit dewpoint, little will-o-the-wisps began to envelop the road here and there. Deer were numerous. Nine hours in, I added a layer - tights and a midlayer jacket. And I chugged some mashed potatoes. I had been a little chilly and on the edge of cramping for a while. I grabbed an earbud and mp3 player and rocked out as the moon came up. Whether it was the taters or the tights or the tunes or just a few minutes off the bike, I felt a ton better and picked up a bit of speed.
Soon after that, Bill peeled off to gas the car. He still had more than half a tank, but the plan had been to get gas in Tupelo because it was an easy place to get off and on the Trace for him. Still, it took him a while to catch up to me. Bill ended up doing leapfrog all night. For this race we're allowed to choose between direct follow and leapfrog at night, and direct follow is really draining. We decided at the start that he’d start out doing leapfrog and could always switch to direct follow if either of us felt like I needed it. I don't know that it made any difference in my speed: I have good lights, the moon was full, and sometimes NOT having everything you need right at your disposal means you don't "need" to stop as often. So except for the regular pee stops and the occasional potato nosh, I stayed on the bike. I was getting the vast majority of my calories from CarboRocket Half Evil and CarboPro. This was my first race on CarboRocket. It will not be my last, and I'm particularly smitten with the Black Cherry. I took in 200 mg of caffeine every few hours, which kept me alert. I never felt particularly sleepy.
Around midnight we started seeing a 4 person team's vans. At first they would just pull through and immediately pull over to set up the next exchange. After a couple of hours, they crept forward and we could see them getting out and staged. I was glad to have the company - their crew was really having a ball out there and cheering me on.
Dawn hit as we neared the Pearl River and the mandatory shuttle around Jackson, where there are traffic concerns. I "wasted" a few seconds on a New Day Smooch: time well spent! At the shuttle point I piled into the car while Bill loaded the bike. He had a lovely racer smorgasbord set out for me: the last of the mashed potatoes, a smoothie, and - yum! - George had slipped him a a York Peppermint Pattie! When I exited the shuttle, that team was still hot on our heels. Their van was staged for an exchange, and I figured since they wouldn't have to take any downtime to unload their bike they'd pick me off pretty quickly. Now that it was light, I could see their racers and they looked pretty fit, so I wasn't surprised that they were passing me - more that they were taking so long about it. Turns out they were thinking...the same thing. When they did pass me, with something like 60 miles to go, their racer congratulated me - said that they were actually on a record pace for teams, and that they had spent the past ten hours chasing me down. That I was "crushing it"....
Shortly after that ego stroke, Kellie, my coach, started bugging Bill to make sure that I was working to my best. I kinda was - I was still riding "happy", but it was a hammerin' happy. So I dialed it up just a little - still "happy", but - with more of an edge. With 62 miles to go and the morning sun starting to heat up a bit, I shed the jacket. From there on that's what it was - edgy, happy hammering - as I watched the miles click away. I was vaguely worried that one of the real fast guys who'd started later might pass me in the last mile. On the one hand, that's totally okay - terrific if someone else has a terrific day, too - but on the other hand, don't get complacent, and stay accountable. I told Bill I definitely wanted to be done by 27:00. He did the math and told me I was doing better than that.
With something like 24 miles to go I took one last pee stop, and Bill loaded me up with the last bottle of Cherry 333. Locked and loaded! We arrived at the South Terminus Parking Lot at 12:35 - so 25:50 elapsed time, plus a 20 minute allowance for the final miles in to downtown Natchez for an official time of 26:10. Between stop lights, traffic, and just not needing to go fast any more, I probably used the whole twenty to roll about 2.5 miles.
Photos and t shirt and medal on the shores of the Mississippi River, then I started to feel a little woozy as my body sought permission to shut down after the effort. Somehow I managed to walk to Fat Mama's and wolf down some tamales. I decide to be a wimp and ask Bill to go get the car (three blocks away) rather than walk back. We spent the night at a very cool AirBnB. I'd rented it back in November - waaaaay back in the Before Times, when I was going to have a big crew - and since it was already paid fo
r I decided to just go with it. It was a HUGE house. Four bedrooms, three bathrooms (two with clawfoot tubs), 12' ceilings, and a grand piano in the grand hall. Definitely overkill for Bill and me, but there was plenty of room for Bill to sort out the gear and pack down the bike while I took a bath and a quick nap. By then I was hungry again. Chinese takeout is what I'm nearly always craving after something like this.
We drove off to Jackson in the morning. Fortunately we were at the airport nice and early, because our return flight was going through Charlotte - and the baggage clerk was very concerned that the Charlotte plane (slightly smaller than Dallas flight I'd come in on) wouldn't fit the bike. Not great news on a Sunday morning in the deep South; it's not like we could just drive it over to the UPS store and ship it. She sprang into action and came up with an alternate itinerary for the bike: if for some reason it didn't fit on our flight it would go via Dallas. (Note: when I booked the flight, I had avoided that Dallas flight home because it was considerably more expensive!) Still only $30 to fly the bike, and either way it'd arrive in Sacramento by the time we did. As it turns out the bike DID fit - but at every turn we were identified as "the bike people" and the employees let us know what was going on.
Schiltter Freestyle recumbent bike. FLO 60 wheels, set up tubeless with 28 mm Schwalbe Pro One tires. 1x12 drivetrain (48Tx 10-50). Zero mechanical issues! These are nice, fast wheels. I was happy to have them tubeless: the pavement was overall very smooth but there were a bunch of expansion cracks on bridges; none of them were extreme but a pinch flat wasn't out of the realm of possible. One gear item that we added for this trip was an electric bike pump. I bought it because it takes up a lot less space than a floor pump - but we were really happy with it. The bike - spot on. Can’t say enough good things about it.
Food: I alternated bottles of CarboPro and CarboRocket 333/Half Evil. Even though I didn't have extensive experience with it, I couldn't resist the siren call of using a fuel called "333" for the 444 - and it was a GREAT call. I think I would've been fine to run only 333; it was definitely what I was preferring in the latter stages of the race when I was more depleted. The extra calories and electrolytes were a boost. I'd worried about taking in too many electrolytes early on since with the cool weather I wasn't sweating or drinking as much. The occasional serving of mashed potatoes, yogurt squeezies, and York Peppermint Patties rounded it out. This race felt like solid progress toward a liquid-forward fueling plan.
Clothing: I kept it really simple: base layer, jersey, and knickers. Overnight, I added a windblock fleece jacket, tights, and full gloves. Shed the jacket and gloves after sunup Saturday. I had brought shoe covers and a couple more cold layers but that was all I needed.
Thank yous: First - Bill! George had said that a crew of one would work out on this one, and he was right. That didn't make it easy. Lots and lots and lots of driving, feeding, cheering. Moylan Training: Kellie always has me well prepared for races, even when I'm doubting myself. Schlitter Bikes: the Freestyle is an amazing platform for racing and John did such a great job of fitting me to it that it feels like an extension of my body. FLO wheels - fast wheels that are strong enough to ship, no worries. #schlitterbikes #flofactoryteam #nt444 #moylantraining #carborocket