If you’re an ultra-distance cyclist in the Midwest, there are precious few organized, single-day events beyond 100 miles or so to choose from. For many years, the Calvin’s Challenge 12-Hour Race in central Ohio was one of those few. With the same organizers for a very long time, “Calvin’s” grew to be a mainstay of Midwestern ultra cycling.
A couple of years ago, those organizers announced that they were retiring and seeking new ownership for the event. Sadly, no one came forward. When we gathered in Springfield in early 2016, the event’s definitive demise had not yet been confirmed — but a serious pall hovered over the mood nonetheless. As if to confirm the mood, a steady rain began falling after just three hours. That rain continued the entire rest of the event. Although my daughter and I had still had a good time riding, we went home saddened that this might be the last year we would get to participate. (To make the event a bit more memorable, I’d even competed using a long-obsolete classic steel bike from the early 1980s.)
Without a new director, Calvin’s went dormant in 2017. Then, later that year, came a big announcement: Maria del Pilar Vázquez would be assuming the reins! Calvin’s was back!
All of that is by way of introduction, and to say that my daughter and I were very excited to make the trip back down to Ohio earlier this month. And I can say, unequivocally, that as good as the “old” Calvin’s was … the “new” Calvin’s is even better.
For starters, the location. Virtually all 12-Hour / 24-Hour races have a base of operations, where participants park and set up their supplies. The race is then run using one or more fixed loops of roads. This allows participants to bite off chunks of mileage as they are able, to pick up fresh supplies (and have access to a toilet) at regular intervals, and to have a place to rest if needed. The old Calvin’s used a school property, which worked alright, but the school itself wasn’t open for riders to go inside. The new base of operations is a few miles up the road, at a Knights of Columbus Hall.
Of course, as a Knight, I immediately felt “at home,” but that is the least of the reasons why I prefer the new location. The building itself was open for us to use, and it had plenty of space (and indoor toilets, to supplement the port-a-potty outside). Moreover, the building was open the night before. My daughter and I were able to set up our bikes inside, including our basics like helmets and shoes. This meant one less thing to worry about in the frenzied pre-race morning.
Why was the building open the night before? Actually, it was open all night — and that brings me to the next of the event’s enhancements. Calvin’s now includes a 24-Hour option, in addition to the 12-Hour and 6-Hour options it’s had previously. Furthermore, the three starting times are staggered so all finish at the same time: 6pm on Saturday. The 24-Hour riders kicked off at 6pm Friday. We 12-Hour riders started at 6am Saturday. The 6-Hour folks got riding at noon.
As an aside: no, we didn’t even think about trying the 24-Hour option. I’ve done 24-Hour races before, and my daughter and I will be doing one next month. But I in particular wasn’t even close to being in shape to do one the first weekend of May — especially not with the nasty weather we had all “spring” this year. Moreover, the Calvin’s 24-Hour race is strictly non-drafting, because it serves as a qualifier for the Race Across America. For me and my daughter, this is a deal-breaker. We think a big part of what makes these events fun is being able to ride together, and to ride with the other enthusiasts who love this crazy sport. That said, it is really cool the 24-Hour option was available, and it should raise the event’s overall profile and “draw,” even if this particular format isn’t a fit for us.
Out on the road, the course itself was quite nice. At 23.2 miles, the main loop was a nice improvement over the approximately 50-mile main loop used in the past. It was still long enough to be interesting, but brought us around to our supplies more frequently. I only had to carry one water bottle instead of two. Also, toward the later part of the afternoon, we didn’t have to worry about not being able to finish a final big loop before time expired. In the past, we would switch to the 6-mile short loop after 150 miles, to play it safe. Problem is, those short loops get boring pretty quickly. Having a 23-mile main loop allowed us to manage things so perfectly, we only rode the short loop once. Moreover, both loops were virtually all rural, with wonderful farm scenery, and little traffic. There is enough gently-rolling terrain to be interesting, but only a couple of big climbs (and less than 1,000 feet of climbing on each long loop).
So … how did we do? In a word: GREAT! We didn’t set any personal records, but both of us exceeded our expectations, and were very happy with our results. We both turned in good, solid performances and went home more than satisfied. I finished right in the middle of all 12-Hour men, and she finished right in the middle of all 12-Hour women.
The 6am start meant we needed to have lights for the first trip around the course. We stayed with a good group the whole way, and averaged a bit over 20 MPH. Back at the K of C Hall, we rolled through the timing station and kept going without a break, so we could stay with that group. This allowed us to continue averaging around 20 MPH, without a lot of effort. Coming back around to K of C the second time, we were still feeling good — but we needed to take a quick break for supplies and the toilets. So did a lot of other people, so our group dissolved.
Unfortunately, from here on out, my daughter and I were pretty much on our own. From time to time, we did connect with a handful of other cyclists — but that was unusual. Our laps 3 through 5 were all about 15 minutes slower than our first two, with our MPH dropping to the mid-16s. Not bad, just a little frustrating. We made a quick stop after each loop, for a fresh bottle and to use the toilet.
The weather, BTW, was perfect. Low-to-mid 60s, largely overcast, with minimal wind. I wore tights and an extra shirt for the first two laps, but was comfortable in just shorts and a jersey the rest of the day. Staying hydrated was easy.
The sixth time around, we managed to hang with a few strong riders who helped us pick up speed (to nearly 18 MPH). We lost them toward the end, however, so stopped for a break at K of C.
We were now at roughly the 140-mile mark, with a little over three and a half hours remaining. I personally find this to be the most difficult stretch of any ultra-distance event. You’ve been on the road a long time. The start is a distant memory. But the finish still seems impossibly far away. (If you’ve done the Seattle to Portland one-day ride, or if you’ve read my novel which brings that event to life, think about the stretch from Lexington to St. Helens.)
We forced ourselves back on the road, with much of our conversation focused on a strategy for reaching the 190-mile mark. We hadn’t begun the day with any hard and fast mileage goals, but we agreed it would be really nice to finish with a “190” handle rather than a “180.” If we pushed ourselves, and didn’t take too many breaks, it seemed we might have just enough time to get there.
Lap #7 went well enough. We rode for a while with one of the six-hour participants, and talking with him helped take our minds off the late afternoon tedium. We began Lap #8 at about 4:15pm, which was right before everyone was required to switch to the short loop.
We could’ve switched to the 4.9-mile short loop, but my daughter preferred to do the long one again. She reasoned that if we kept coming around to the start/finish so many times, we would be tempted to stop more often. Being out on the long loop would force us to keep going. Moreover, only complete loops count toward one’s mileage total. If time expires before you get back, you’re out of luck. We were sitting at 162.4 miles. One long loop and one short would get us 28.1 additional miles, or 190.5 total. Five short loops would get us only to 186.9. And we weren’t sure we had time for a sixth complete short loop. (As an aside, late in the day, doing this kind of math is one of the best ways to keep your mind active and to avoid going crazy!)
We ended up being basically the only riders on the long loop our last time around. We passed no one, and were passed by nobody, which was weird but kind of cool.
We swung through the time station at 5:43pm, and I got a huge adrenaline surge. The time remaining was barely enough for five miles. “Go! Go! Go!” I shouted, as the two of us sped back onto the course.
I’m not sure where that second wind came from, but it sure was fun. Out on the road, once we were over the one big climb, I laid down a blistering pace the rest of the way. With my daughter close on my tail, and course officials waving us through intersections, we passed other riders left and right. Finally, we came back round to K of C … with a few minutes to spare. We’d averaged 19.1 MPH for that loop – a pace we hadn’t managed since early that morning. I threw my arms up in triumph, like I’d won the Tour de France. Having given everything I had, and coming across the line just in time, it really did feel almost that good.
How did I manage such a strong finish, despite not having done as much training as I would’ve liked? A lot of it is psychological. The more events of this length that you do, and the more years you do them, the less intimidating they seem. Even more important, though, is effective fueling. I’ve come to swear by Hammer Nutrition products, and wouldn’t think of doing an ultra-distance event without them.
My main fuel is a mix of two powders: HEED (for carbs and electrolytes), and Vegan Protein. This approximates their flagship endurance fuel product, Perpetuem, but without the soy (which gives me digestive problems). In addition, in a small bag mounted to my bike’s top tube, I carried about a dozen little baggies with a mix of several Hammer supplement capsules (Mito Caps, Race Caps Supreme, Anti-Fatigue Caps, Endurance Amino, and Endurolytes) in each; I consumed one of these packets each hour on the road. I also carried a flask of Hammer Gel, for supplemental calories and energy. At the finish line, I mixed up and drank a big serving of Hammer Recoverite, and used it to wash down several additional supplements. As a result, I actually ended up feeling pretty good the next morning. I am not by any means a paid spokesman for Hammer. I just love their stuff so much, I want everyone to know about it.
BTW, the fueling took years of trial and error to figure out. Getting that dialed in has been just as important — if not more important — than the number of pre-event training miles I manage to log. I’d only done about 1,000 total miles going into Calvin’s. I only did three 50+ rides, and none longer than 60 miles. This certainly wasn’t by choice, and I would’ve liked to have done more training. But experience and effective fueling let me climb in the saddle for 190 miles without fear, and to feel surprisingly good at the end.
As fantastic as the “new” Calvin’s Challenge event is, I would offer a few suggestions for ways it could be even better next year:
- Add additional toilets, and put them in a more prominent place. The K of C Hall had one small bathroom for each gender (one stall and one urinal in the men’s). There was one portable toilet outside, but way on the far side of the parking lot. Ideally, there would be at least two portable toilets, and they would be set up along the main driveway (in front of the building, just past the the start/finish).
- Speaking of that main driveway, riders should be allowed and welcomed to set up their coolers and supplies along there. I may have misunderstood, but on Friday night the race director said she expected most people to set their things in or near their cars, in the parking lot. We did so, and it worked out alright, but a few people set up along the drive — which was a much more efficient place. Had I known that was allowed, I would’ve done it.
- The course was extremely well marked, and I never once worried I’d missed a turn. However, there is one really dangerous “blind” intersection which could use some warning. About halfway through the long loop, the route crosses Selma Pike. Riders were supposed to stop, but almost everyone treated it like the overwhelming majority of intersections, where it was possible to simply slow down and look for cross traffic. The problem is, the cars on Selma Pike go fast — and are impossible to see until you’re actually at the cross street. I recognized the blindness of the intersection right away, and stopped every time, but many riders did not. I witnessed multiple close calls, which could’ve easily ended with severe injuries or worse. I would suggest a sign or two, and perhaps pavement markings, insisting riders stop. An announcement at the start line wouldn’t hurt, either. Nor would an informal warning sign on Selma Pike itself, cautioning drivers about heavy bicycle traffic as they approach the intersection.
- The food and drink selection was great, and I wouldn’t add anything. Although I do have a preferred fueling routine, it was nice having extras like granola bars to break up that routine. My only issue with the refreshments is I was unclear as to whether all the drink coolers had only water, or if some contained other drinks. Content labels on the coolers would’ve been helpful.
- Regarding food: an optional post-race meal would’ve been fantastic. The K of C Hall is of course set up perfectly for this kind of thing. I was even a little surprised the local Council didn’t put something on. (Last summer, when there was a big boat race near our church, our Council did the award ceremony dinner as a fundraiser.) It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. A simple but hearty buffet would’ve been wonderful. I would’ve gladly plunked down ten bucks for that, and enjoyed swapping stories with other riders while we ate.
- With the electronic timing chips, our results were available instantly on a website. That was very cool. It took little while to find the right page on my phone, though. If there was a way to print out a simple report, and to have posted it on the wall for us all to see, that would’ve been really nice.
Overall, I can’t say enough good things about how nice it is having Calvin’s back — and how much I appreciate the improvements the new race director has made. I hope the event continues to grow. Speaking for ourselves, my daughter and are already looking forward to coming back in 2019.