National 24-Hour Challenge 2016: Ride Report

Father’s Day weekend, I again headed out to Middleville, Michigan (about 90 minutes west of here) for the National 24-Hour Challenge. It’s not technically a race, but rather a “challenge yourself to do your personal best” event. It draws hundreds of people from all over the USA, and from other countries. Lots of fun, very festive, and something I look forward to each year.

This was my third time riding, and long-time blog readers will recall my ride reports from 2014 and 2015. The 2016 ride report, which follows below the break, is much longer than a typical blog post — and way off the blog’s usual focus. I put together these long write-ups mostly as a set of “lessons learned” that can be reviewed the next time I’m preparing for a similar event. I am sharing this one here largely for the benefit of other cyclists who might be considering taking the plunge and trying something crazy, and are led to this page by a Google search for information about the event.

But even if you’re not a cyclist, and have no interest in trying something crazy, I hope you find the story entertaining.

This was a tough year for me. My initial goal was the 360 miles needed to get a 1000-mile jersey (based on cumulative miles across all the times doing the event). Had all the stars aligned, I think I could’ve gotten there. Unfortunately, the only star that showed up was the sun. Temperatures were in the low 90s all afternoon, and I really felt it. The one saving grace is that humidity was quite low. Still, I got cooked in the heat and never really recovered. Getting the triple century felt like a major accomplishment, and I was satisfied with it. I’ll get my thousand-mile jersey at the second checkpoint next year.

I left home fairly early on Friday, but unfortunately forgot a few key items: my pillow, and the grilled chicken I’d cooked. I had to stop at the Wal-Mart in Hastings for supplies. In addition to a pillow, I bought some kielbasa, and turkey lunch meat. Picked up some raisins and potato chips as well.

Even with this stop, I got to Thornapple Kellogg Middle School (TKMS) — the event’s central hub and headquarters — in Middleville with plenty of time. Inflated my air mattress in the gym, set up my sleeping bag, and enjoyed the spaghetti dinner the local Rotary Club sponsored. I then took my bike out for a nice, easy trip around the short loop. Wanted to make sure everything was working properly, and to see what the road conditions looked like. No problems at all.

Lights went out a little before 10pm, and came on at 5:50am. For breakfast, I had a few fig bars, along with a 20oz cup of coffee that had some Hammer Gel mixed in. Turned out to be the perfect breakfast, and a much better alternative than paying $7 or whatever for the big pancake breakfast that was too much food. I put my cooler and folding chair out along the circle drive, along with a plastic tub with tools and other supplies.

A couple of nights previously, I’d filled all my water bottles with my custom fuel mix and frozen them solid. Anticipating the extreme heat on Saturday, I wanted them to start as cold as possible. Even after a night in the cooler with just ice to keep them cold, the bottles were still frozen solid. However, even that wasn’t enough to really work for me. Because they’re standard water bottles, the contents thawed pretty quickly in the heat. Big lesson learned: GET INSULATED WATER BOTTLES. I chatted with other riders who were using these, they said they really work. Definitely time to invest in some of those.

My fuel mix is 4 (small) scoops Hammer HEED to one (large) scoop of Hammer Vegan Protein. I then use a scoop from Hammer Whey (I think it’s 63cc) for each bottle. Perfect proportion.

I rode with an X-LabTurbo Wing mounted to the saddle, which holds two extra bottle cages and to which various other things can be secured, and a Rocket Bag that mounts to the top tube and secures to the headset. In the Rocket Bag, I stashed my cell phone, the route map, and lots of tiny baggies with individual servings of Hammer supplements. I carried a total of four water bottles at the start, and began the event with a baggie of fig bars in my pocket. I also rode with a flask of Hammer Gel, mounted to my handlebar stem using a convenient holster.

Each individual serving of Hammer supplements included: one Race Caps Supreme, one Endurance Amino, one Mito Caps, one Endurolytes, and two Anti-Fatigue Caps. I also carried a tube of Endurolytes. I consumed a baggie of supplements virtually every hour on the hour while riding, and had an extra Endurolytes or two from the tube at the bottom of each hour.

I lined up early, so was able to grab onto the lead group right from the beginning at 8am. We rode at a very fast ─ but not at all uncomfortable ─ pace. A few miles later we reached Middleville proper. A local bagpipe band played as we went through, and lots of locals were clapping and ringing cowbells. Very cool! There was a sizable climb right after we left town, which actually felt good. The lead group of 25-30 riders came back together after that climb, and I stuck with them all the way to the first checkpoint (34.4 miles). Our average speed to the checkpoint was roughly 23 MPH.

n24hc 2016.jpg

Shortly after leaving Middleville. I’m #73: green jersey, orange bike. Photo credit: Al Stover.

At the checkpoint, volunteers punch a hole in each rider’s bib number indicating they’ve completed that first leg. I got stuck behind a couple of other people – should have sprinted ahead of them during the approach. But it turned out to be okay. While waiting to get my number punched, I swapped my empty water bottle to the Turbo Wing for a fresh one (I’d completely finished one bottle, and had started on a second). I then blasted through the parking lot, and easily stayed with the lead group. We were again going down the road well above 20 MPH.

I managed to hold on to that group until about Mile 50 or so. At that point, as we approached a stop sign at a major highway, several riders managed to get across it ahead of the cross traffic. Many of us didn’t. The group was torn in half. By the time the rest of us were able to cross, the leaders where too far ahead to catch. And I didn’t care. I’d been working a little too hard, anyway, and it was starting to get quite warm. I backed off the pace, rode with the others, and did fine.

At Checkpoint #2 (71.7 miles), after getting my number punched, I used the toilet for the first time. I also hosed myself down, which was a big help. Had a banana, and then got back on the road. I soon settled into a comfortable solo pace, and was feeling pretty good. It took a while to connect with other riders, and that was fine with me. I enjoyed being by myself for a change, and just hung out on the aerobars. Unfortunately, all my drinks were now quite warm. And I didn’t have a bottle of plain water for dousing. After about an hour or so, I was counting down the miles to the next stop and wondering where I might be able to find ice. Really needed to cool down somehow, and my fuel mix was getting increasingly unpalatable.

At Checkpoint #3, 96.3 miles, I again used the toilet and hosed myself down. I asked one of the very nice volunteers if she knew any place I could buy ice. She didn’t, but did start asking around with other riders’ support crews. Someone let me have some of their own ice, for which I was extremely grateful. I mixed up a bottle of fuel mix with the ice, and another bottle with plain water. I ate a few orange slices, then sat and rested for longer than I would’ve wanted, but I really needed the break from the heat.

Got back on the road, and the bottles stayed cold for a while, but not long enough. I stopped at a convenience store / gas station about 12 miles from the end of the loop. It’s the only real convenience store on the whole route, but it’s a good one. Bought a bottle of water for a dollar, and filled two of my bottles with ice. Drank some of the water, and poured the rest over the ice. These two bottles stayed cold enough to get me to the end of the loop. I drank from the one with fuel mix, and used the other for frequent dousing.

I arrived back at TKMS at about 2:30pm. I’d spent 6:05 on the bike covering the 121.9 miles, meaning my average speed had been about 20 MPH while riding. According to my Garmin, Loop #1 had 4643 feet of climbing. Note that I’d spent nearly a half hour off the bike. Lot more than last year.

The heat really killed my appetite. I didn’t feel like eating much of anything. Forced myself to eat a handful of peanuts, but they didn’t taste very good. I’d been eating Hammer Gel on the bike, and that’d been a big help, but the warm gel didn’t taste very good going down. Next year, it would be a good idea to keep an extra flask in the cooler and swap them.

I got a frozen bottle of fuel mix from the cooler, topped it off with water, and filled a second bottle with ice and water. Headed out for my first of three trips around the 24-mile Loop 2. The loop is generally downhill or level to the one checkpoint, about seven miles in. From there, it climbs for a mile or so, then we have lots of generally downhill terrain for a few miles. Then it climbs a little before leveling off to the finish. According to my Garmin, Loop 2 has around 600 feet of climbing.

I didn’t feel good on any of the trips around Loop 2. The fuel mix and dousing water didn’t stay cold for long, and I didn’t have the appetite to eat much. Felt like I was running on fumes all afternoon, and it was a big struggle to keep putting fuel in my mouth. Averaged 16.7 MPH the first time around. Total riding time was 1:27:23, four minutes slower than my first Loop 2 last year. Second time around was a virtually identical time. The third time was slowest of all, at 1:28:46. Also, during the third time around, I spent some time at the checkpoint getting doused with water. All three times around, I started the loop with a frozen bottle of fuel mix and a water bottle packed with ice water. Tried to take lots of small sips of fuel mix, and douse myself frequently with water. Any fuel mix left when I got to the end of a loop, I put the bottle back in the cooler.

I chatted with a couple of other riders who were using insulated water bottles. Both of them reported that the insulated bottles really do keep the drinks cold, even on a very hot day like this one, as long as you add ice. I’d never before thought that insulated bottles were worth the investment, because I do so few events in weather this hot. But after getting fried at a 12-Hour race last summer in Illinois, and now again on the N24HC, I realized I needed to get some. My regular water bottles were going from frozen solid to “too tepid to be appetizing” in basically no time at all.

When I got back to TKMS around 7:55pm, I knew there wasn’t time for another Loop 2. I surrendered the daytime portion of my rider number. Total daytime miles: 193.9.

At this point, I was feeling really tired. The heat had taken a lot out of me, including my appetite. That meant I hadn’t eaten as much as I should have; nothing had any appeal. Also, because the liquid wasn’t staying cold, I hadn’t consumed as much fuel mix as I should have. I went inside the building and took a little break. Mentally and physically, I felt done for the day — but the event was only halfway over.

I had to find some way to recharge. Went to the cafeteria, where volunteers from a local church were selling food, and bought a piece of pizza. It wasn’t bad. A little dry, but I was able to get it down. Had several glasses of cold water as I ate.

The one thing I really wanted to eat, and that really sounded good: cold watermelon. But, of course, I hadn’t brought any — and there was no way to buy any. Later in the evening, a crew member for one of the other riders offered me some watermelon from their cooler. It was incredible. Went down easy, very refreshing. Definitely need to put this on the list for next year.

The rest of the evening was a blur. Got back on the course around 8:30 and started plugging away doing trips around Loop 3. The pizza proved to have been a good change of pace, and I slowly felt energy returning. I did two loops, then put my lights on the bike and went back on the course.

The locals who lived along Loop 3 were wonderful. Lots of them sat out on their porches or driveways well into the night, cheering us as we went by. (Some of the little kids were clearly up way past their bedtimes.) As it got later and later, and darker and darker, it got nicer and nicer knowing that someone else was out there and pulling for you. Some people were still sitting out in folding chairs, bundled up in blankets, as late as midnight.

At some point along the way (around 11pm or so), I went inside the cafeteria and bought a bowl of ravioli. Had a few glasses of Coke as well (I’d brought a 2L bottle). I wasn’t able to eat a lot of ravioli right then, but the moistness of the sauce was really nice. And what I was able to eat did give me some nice energy. I stashed the rest of the bowl in the gym for later, and got back on the course at 11:15.

That little break, and the Coke, helped me get a second wind. I felt better while riding, even if my speeds were gradually slowing. At some point, I opened a bottle of chilled Starbucks mocha Frappuccino that I’d brought in the cooler. Put that in my second water bottle, and alternated sips of that with sips from the fuel bottle. The flavor was wonderful, and the caffeine was pretty helpful as well.

Finished my ninth Loop 3 at 1:23am, and knew I needed to take a nap. My times were slowing to more than thirty minutes per loop, and (more seriously) my vision was starting to get funny. I was having real trouble staying awake and focusing. I was sitting at 262.3 miles, and needed five more loops to reach the triple century mark. Went inside, got both sets of lights charging, ate the rest of the ravioli, set my alarm for about 90 minutes, and crashed on the sleeping bag at 1:45.

When the alarm went off, I felt okay. Got moving, and back on the bike. Problem was, at this point the temperature was sort of in-between: too chilly for just a jersey, but not chilly enough for a jacket. I hadn’t brought a turtleneck, or long-sleeved t-shirt, which would’ve been perfect. First one or two times around, I wore tights and a jacket. The tights were good, but I got too warm with the jacket. Even unzipped quite a ways, it wasn’t comfortable. I ditched it, and continued on with a jersey and tights.

I made myself do the five loops. At this point, it was a little after 6am, and I had to make a decision. I’d gotten to 300.3 miles, so had achieved my minimum goal of a triple century. But it just felt too “minimal” to me. With nearly two hours left on the clock, it seemed like a waste to leave it there. Made myself do one more “good measure” lap. It was my slowest of the 15 times around, because at this point I knew I was basically finished and just taking a victory lap. Arrived at TKMS at 6:40, and decided to nap until breakfast. Didn’t turn in my rider number right away, though, because I thought I might get a second wind while lying there. After about 10 minutes, though, I knew I wasn’t going back out on the bike. I turned in my number, verified that I’d reached 307.9 miles, ate a Hammer Vegan Recovery Bar, and crashed on the sleeping bag until 8:15.

The breakfast was awesome, but the award ceremony was a bit slow to get started. Once they finished with the raffle, I took the opportunity to make a few trips to the car, and get everything packed. I really wanted to get on the road.

Some additional thoughts and notes about specific aspects of the event:

Lights: We had to have lights on by 9:30, which was about a half hour past sunset. I brought two rechargeable lights, a Niterider 350 lumen model, and a Cateye 1200 lumen light. The idea was to charge one while using the other, and also to have a backup in case something happened to one of the lights. The Cateye 1200 supposedly has enough power to last all night on a lower setting, but I didn’t want to take any chances. Both lights use the same fixed base, so it was easy to swap them out. I affixed the base to an accessory rail that bolted to my handlebars. Because of the aerobars, I needed to put the accessory rail under the handlebars. But the Cateye was too big to fit between the rail and the handlebar, so I mounted the lights upside down (to the bottom of the rail). This worked perfectly.

When dusk approached, I also swapped my sunglasses for clear glasses. I used a pair of cheap shooting glasses from Wal-Mart, and they were perfect.

I mounted the Niterider at 9:15 or so, and used the lowest setting (about 125 lumens) as dusk fell. This allowed me to burn the minimum battery power while technically complying with the law, at a time when I really didn’t need much additional light. When it got really dark, later, I switched up the power. The next time I went in for a break, I swapped lights and got the Niterider charging. With the big Cateye, I pretty much always used the “all night” setting (about 250 lumens) when riding on level ground or climbing. When screaming down the one hill, I always switched up to full power. The thing is like an automotive headlight! Amazing.

In the plastic tub, I had extra AAA batteries for the taillight, but I never needed them. I also brought a backup red taillight, just in case something catastrophic happened to my other one. Even something as simple as the bike toppling over at a rest stop could potentially break the taillight. Without a backup, I would’ve been grounded until sunup.

Garmin: My old Garmin Edge 500 doesn’t have enough battery power to go more than 14-15 hours or so. However, if plugged in to wall power for recharging, it triggers a “charging mode” and closes out the current event. You’d have to start over from zero when it resets. In past years, I’ve used a Gomadic unit with AA batteries to charge the Garmin as I ride; it uses an “on the go” USB cable that doesn’t trigger the charging mode. However, the Gomadic is bulky – and last year, the Garmin had issues while the Gomadic was plugged into it. I decided to try a new option: the Anker PowerCore+ mini charger. Cost just ten bucks from Amazon, and is small and rechargeable. I used a Male-Male USB cable to connect it to a mini USB “on the go” cable that plugged into the Garmin. The PowerCore fit easily in my top tube bag, and worked flawlessly. At night, when charging, the Garmin display stays lit up and easy to read. When the Garmin is fully charged, the PowerCore shuts itself off (and the backlighting goes away). Lesson learned: wait and don’t start charging until late in the evening. That way, I can have a backlit display basically all night.

Gearing: I rode a 53-39 up front, and 11-23 11s cassette in the back. It was actually a little better than the 12-25 I’ve always ridden in the past. Virtually all of the hills on the course are just rollers. I never needed to go lower than my 21T cog (49 inch gear) on any hill. At the other end of the spectrum, the 53 x 11 turned out to be surprisingly nice to have. I never spun out the 53 x 12, but the 53 x 11 allowed me to use an easier cadence in several downhill situations (especially when riding with a fast group). Plus, the 11-23 cassette saved some weight.

Other Hardware. I rode my Curtlo road bike, which has a True Temper S3 steel frame and a carbon fork. Short/shallow drop bars, with clip-on aero bars. I used the aero bars a lot when I was riding alone, especially on flatter sections. The extra set of hand positions was almost as nice as the ability to take a more efficient aerodynamic position on the bike, and helped stave off muscle aches.

I learned a lesson from last year, and ditched the tubular wheels. As much as I enjoy riding tubulars, it was a mistake to use them last year; I ended up getting worried and carrying too many supplies to fix a potential flat. I rode my Rolf Prima Elan clincher wheels, with a fairly new set of Continental Grand Prix 4000S 700x23c tires. (I would have preferred 25mm, but didn’t feel like swapping them out before the event.) I did take a set of tubular wheels, as a backup in case I broke a spoke or something. Fortunately, nothing catastrophic like that happened.

Also, this year I made a mileage chart in Excel, that showed exact cumulative mileage for each additional short loop. (I did three versions, which all printed on the same page, assuming 2, 3, and 4 trips around Loop 2.) This was really nice to have, because I could easily see precisely where I was at (my Garmin calibration doesn’t perfectly match the official course mileage), and how many more loops I needed to get to a particular threshold. In past years, I’d tried to do this math in my head; late at night, that can be pretty challenging.

Clothing: I wore a full Hammer Nutrition clothing kit. Short socks. I took a spare set of clothing (including a spare set of shoes) with me, just in case. Swapped socks in the middle of the night after my nap, which helped morale a little. Never needed other spares, though.

Results: My 307.9 miles was tied for 72nd among the 239 participants, or roughly the 70th percentile – just like the last two years. Although I got fewer miles than the last two years, it appears everyone else’s totals were down as well (thanks to the heat). Out of the 29 people in my age group (M 45-49), I was #8. If I hadn’t done that final “good measure” loop, I would’ve fallen behind four other guys who had totals just a mile or two less than mine.

Looking Ahead: A big mistake this year was forgetting several essential supplies at home, and then having to stop and find makeshift replacements at Wal-Mart. Next year, I need to make a physical list of everything I need to take, and physically check that every item makes it in the car. Chilled watermelon definitely needs to be on that list, along with insulated water bottles. Thompson seedless grapes would have been nice to have, too.

Hopefully, somehow, I can get to 350 miles next year!

Al Stover Photography: 24 Hour 2016 Sission Road &emdash;

Photo Credit: Al Stover

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