Yesterday I rode the Corkscrew Century, a 103 mile route through absolutely gorgeous valleys, ridges, small towns, vineyards, and farm fields. With 6000 feet of climbing at a maximum of 12-ish percent, it is the friendlier cousin to the other Highlander rides. But, as I learned, that doesn’t mean it’s easy! The nutshell version of my ride is that the first 68 miles were among the nicest I’ve spent on a bike, and the last 35 miles were among – no, they WERE – the toughest. Not because of the terrain but because of a flawed strategy for fueling and/or electrolyte replacement and/or taking on a ride 42 miles longer than any I’ve done since my accident. I’m betting that some combination of those three factors caused the relentless nausea, fogginess, and weakness that dominated the last third of the ride.
Now that my gut is once again accepting donations and distributing them to my various physical systems, I’m hoping to unpack the events of the ride in order to pin down my best strategies for NOT feeling this way again. I’m definitely going to work with my coach, Mary Eggers, now of QT2 Systems, and hopefully with the QT2 nutrition staff, but I am more than open to input from any of you who have had similar experiences or just want to float theories. The more I can learn from this, the better. Especially since my unfortunate digestive state caused me to miss competing in the Finger Lakes Tri this morning. That was Disappointing, with the big “D” put there intentionally.
But to start with the beginning of the story: I felt ready for this ride. I’d had a good taper week, and by Friday morning I felt fresh but not sluggish. After some extra carbs in my diet on Friday I felt well-stoked to the point of a little too puffy. It’s amazing how my body reacts to extra grains now that I usually target them around workouts, per the Core Diet. I had trouble sleeping the night before the race; woke up at 1:30am and just couldn’t get back to sleep for a couple of hours. YUCK. This very seldom happens to me, but I was keyed up for the weekend and wasn’t too concerned. I had been getting good sleep all week, and one shorter night wasn’t going to break me.
I’d made a fueling strategy that would give me 250-300 calories per hour while on the bike. Each hour I planned to drink 150 calories’ worth of either Heed or Perpetuem, and I planned to take a gel or other 100 calorie-ish snack (2 Fig Newtons, banana, half Hammer Bar, etc) every 45 minutes. I also planned to carry one bottle of plain water with me all the time, as I like to clear my mouth of all the sweet stuff periodically.
This fueling strategy generally had worked well for me on my other longer rides this season. I’d done three longer rides since my accident, all around 60 miles. Unfortunately, I did start feeling a little nauseous at about mile 50-55 of all of those rides. Most significant was my experience at Musselman, where at mile 50, when I tried to pick up the pace slightly, I a wave of weakness, nausea, and general crappiness forced me to slow my pace way down. The heat was a big factor at Musselman, combined with the lack of salt in my nutrition plan. But I thought since the weather would be cooler at the Highlander (64-72 ish degrees and partly sunny) I wouldn’t run into problems with salt deficiency. I’m pretty sure I thought wrong.
Anyhow, I met fellow Train-Thiser Linda Brisbane at Bristol Mountain, and we started off around 7:15am. Beautiful cool air, no threat of rain, and no significant wind made for some pretty ideal conditions! We chatted for the first 40 miles or so, and we got the first couple of significant climbs behind us. Only on the first big climb up French Hill Rd did I have to resort to The Weave; otherwise the grades were sane enough that I could just spin, stand up, or alternate spinning and standing. I stuck to my nutrition plan and felt strong. We slowed our pace a bit between miles 40 and 60, as Linda was stretching some tight muscles, but honestly I figured the slightly slower pace would be good for me. I have a bad habit of pushing my heart rate too high early in rides and paying for it later.
We stopped at two rest stops during that portion of the ride, and I had Fig Newtons, a half banana with a little peanut butter, a pretzel rod, and some watermelon, all within the parameters of my plan. I drank my Heed & Perpetuem approximately on schedule, but by hour 4 I had fallen behind by about 1 hour’s worth. I’d had a bit of extra gel & food though, so I figured I was ok. I was also drinking a half to full bottle of water between each rest stop. And I was peeing a lot. Several tree-pees, as well as portapotty stops at each rest stop. I think this should’ve been my first clue that my salt / electrolyte balance could be getting out of whack. But at the time I just thought I was well-hydrated.
We both rolled into the rest stop at mile 68 feeling good. I was ready to eat, so I had a small peanut butter & jelly sandwich (one slice of bread’s worth, light on the pb), fig newton, and small slice of watermelon. Not crazy. I also noticed that I was finally sweating, so I popped 2 endurolytes. I know, endurolytes have lots of electrolytes but not much salt and you have to take a truckload to get significant salt. I know this but did not act on it. And even though I’d planned to take endurolytes during the whole ride I’d been lazy about it, as it’s a pain to dig out the little container, etc. Poor excuses, and probably the wrong product.
As soon as we left the rest stop I started feeling nauseous. I chalked it up to the peanut butter and just figured my gut needed a little bit of time to settle. Unfortunately, one of the bigger climbs, on Friend Hill Rd, came up just about then. Oh well. Climbed just fine, if not as comfortably. Started feeling really burpy, so I took water and strawberry Perpetuem in small sips. The Perpetuem was NOT sitting well, so I switched to small squirts of gel, followed by water. That was a little better, but I was starting to feel genuinely crappy and kind of chilled and cold-sweaty. My pace was dropping along with my mood; I was coasting on downhills and pedaling lightly, because any exertion at even endurance pace set my stomach off.
When we finally got to the rest stop at mile 85, my only real thought was, “I’m f(*^ed.” Or Corkscrewed, for the family friendly edition. I leaned my bike against the building and found a wooden box to sit on to contemplate whether I was going to throw up. Drank some water, figured I was just bonking. Linda gave me some Sport Beans, which I ate slowly and seemed to perk me up a bit. Then I grabbed some Shot Bloks from the goodie table and found my new favorite food. Seriously. YUM! They actually sat relatively well and seemed to give my energy and disposition a bit of a bump.
(While I was NOT feeling friendly, this nice-but-a-little-overbearing woman came over to ask about the last big climb, which was on Hwy 21 out of Naples. “What’s the strategy on that hill?” she asked. Instead of puking on her, I said without making eye contact, “Pedal.” I was not in the mood for conversation, but I’m pretty sure Linda bailed me out of looking like a complete ass.)
I dumped my Perpetuem in favor of Heed and decided that although my body REALLY would’ve like to call it a day right about then, there really was no bailout plan. I needed to get enough fuel into my body to make it 18 more miles, I needed not to throw up, and I needed to stay focused and safe on my bike. I had really, really wanted to finish this ride strong – and then compete in the Finger Lakes Tri today – but I realized that at this point, the “strong” part was pretty much out the window. The new goal was just to finish, and the bonus would be to finish strong enough to drive myself home.
I took off at Stupid-Slow pace, and after a couple of miles we decided that Linda would ride ahead and be available to give me a ride back to my car if needed. I really, really did not want to exercise that option. I wanted to get back on my own power, however limited it was. I wanted to see if I could read and respond to my needs well enough to finish.
So I took shot bloks, nips of gel, sips of heed, and water every few minutes. I pedaled lightly, and I rattled my poor nauseous self all the way down a 2-mile, steep downhill stretch of rough-grooved pavement coming into Naples. Seriously not what I was in the mood for! But it did force me to focus on something other than my gut – like staying upright – which may have been good. I got through Naples and telephone pole by telephone pole made it up that last climb. At 6 miles to go, there was the final rest stop, which was unfortunately out of Shot Bloks. “We have some squirts,” the guy said. “Squirts?” I think, “You’re lucky I’m not squirting…oh, gels.” 🙂
The last 6 miles ticked away, slowly, and thankfully mostly downhill. My body has never wanted to stop so badly. And finally, after the 103rd mile passed, it could. After a foggy post-race meal of broth, crackers, and a couple bites of grape pie filling, I made it home and embarked on seven hours of sipping salty broth, nibbling saltines very slowly, finally eating some bagel and applesauce, and lying in bed telling myself I probably wouldn’t die and could call an ambulance if I really had to. About 1:30am my gut was settled enough that I could finally fall asleep.
Fork me. Or in this case, Corkscrew me. The Finger Lakes Tri was not going to happen. I could barely get to the bathroom and back, much less load my bike in the car or, uh, compete.
I’d made the best plan I knew how and stuck to it. I ended up taking in 2350 calories during my ride, which was 7 hrs 58 minutes of moving time, plus another hour and a half or so of rest stop / pee break time. That puts me at 247 calories per hour for the 9.5 hour experience. That’s not bad, so unless the problem was WHAT I ate or drank, I don’t think underfueling was the problem. I’m thinking the salt balance was a big factor. When I got home I weighed 2.4 lbs less than when I got up in the morning, and that’s about 2.4% of my body weight. I know that’s enough to cause physiological problems. I’m thinking that I need to figure out my sweat rate in various conditions and dial in a salt replacement program…all of which Mary has suggested to the team, but since I haven’t been riding long very much this season, I hadn’t done it. Whoops.
This was also my longest ride this season by 42 miles. Four months ago I could barely spin 30 easy minutes outside, and I’ve been building steadily. But this quickly-reassembling body has not experienced anything like a ride of this duration. So part of the nausea could’ve just been a request, and then demand, that we stop already.
So the weekend didn’t turn out like I’d planned. But part of taking on these rides and races for me is to take on a genuine challenge, which means I may not succeed. I did the best I knew how, and it wasn’t enough. I didn’t finish strong, and I didn’t even start my second event. But it WAS the best motivation I could ever have to find out how to do it better. I love riding, racing, and training, and I can’t wait to dig back in, after some recovery days. Because as cliche as it is, you really don’t get the peaks without the valleys.