BWR 2019: Reminiscences of a First Time Survivor

By Terry Ford, @so_cal_terry,

Part 1Part 2Part 3

Sunday, May 5, 2019

As the sun peaks above the horizon and the smell of waffles and bacon wafts alluringly through the air, I push my way in a low grade casual panic through the crowd of assembled riders who are preparing for the Belgian Waffle Ride. About fifteen minutes to show time.

Checking out the waffles with Wayne, a friend from Long Beach

While I had grabbed three twist-ties at the BWR Expo the day before, I can only find one of them now.   I glance around looking at the options. Waffles, yes. Long bathroom lines, yes. Twist-ties? No. I weave my way through crowds of spandex-clad combatants trying to find twist-ties. 

“Excuse me, can you please tell me where the registration desk is?!”  

“Sorry, I don’t know about that.”

“I’m just looking for a couple of twist-ties…”

“Not sure about that but I’ve got some donuts?   Do you want one of them?”    

“I don’t think they’d tie very well.   Do you know where the registration desk is?”  

“I think it was back that way, back where you just came from.”   

Guitar Spangled Banner.
Photo by Canyon BWR

Suddenly this guy starts playing the star-spangled banner perched up in the air on an electric guitar, and I still don’t have enough twist-ties.   Cool rendition.   I wonder what type of guitar that is.  How did he get up there anyway?  Focus.  The goal is twist ties.  

I’m trying to face the anthem guitarist, with full respectful attention, while also slowly shuffling sideways with my bike in an attempt to find a twist-tie repository.  A man gives me the “OMG you’re not supposed to shuffle sideways during the anthem” look and I slow my shuffling down a little bit and instead take furtive side-steps.    I’m going to miss the start at this rate.   As the guitarist completes his anthem-solo to applause I turn my head and there I spot them in the gutter, like tiny jeweled gifts from the heavens: a bunch of angel-delivered twist-ties.

Making it to the starting line felt like a victory. Michael is warming up his tongue for the coming event.

I quickly attach two of them to my race plate and thread my way through the crowd back to my spot in wave two.   My friend Michael Macare looks at me with a look that says “where the heck have you been?”  

“Twist ties”, I say.

He just stares at me.

The first wave consisting mostly of the fastest riders takes off to cheers.   I am still rushing to get ready: GPS on – Strava on – helmet on – music attached — shoes tightened — gloves on — uncrustable #1 stuffed in jersey pocket 1, uncrustable #2 compressed, flattened, lightly pounded, and then stuffed in seat bag between a spare tube and some emergency highly compressed Cliff energy shots.  Uncrustable #3 is compressed to nearly a liquid form and jammed unceremoniously along with some sloppy, slurpy compressed Gu chews
in a top tube bag with an iffy zipper . Suddenly friends Shelly and Tanya fly by me going the other direction, also in a hurry since they just missed their start in that first wave.  At least I’m not the only one rushing around like a lunatic.  Quite appropriate that I’ll end up riding with those two by the end of the day.

The start of the BWR is fairly chaotic, but it chills out as the field spreads out. Photo by Canyon BWR.

My heart is beating fast from my twist-tie scavenger hunt around the entire venue and frantic last minute preparations.   I’m exhausted.   

The starting signal is given and our wave starts moving.  We are off.   135 miles of road and gravel await.

To say that I was in way over my head when I signed up for the BWR six weeks before the event is a huge understatement. A little like Sir Cosmo Duff, a Titanic survivor, describing the sinking of his ship as “rather a serious evening.”

I had been relatively fit and active for a few years, riding twice a week on average, but much of this was from short, intense hour-long MTB and cyclocross races.   My other rides were typically under 40 miles, and only a couple of times had I ever extended myself to 50 miles, and just once ridden 5000 feet in a ride – a ride that had left me gasping and gimpy for days.   So, when I signed up for the BWR with its 135 miles (45 on gravel) and 11,000 feet of climb I was under no illusions that I would be able to complete it six weeks hence.

If my friends can do it, I can do it, right? Right?

Many of my North County cycling friends had signed up for it though, and when my friends Casey Cohenmeyer and Michael Macare just couldn’t stop gushing about how great the event was I signed up, planning on going as far as I could. 

The Wafer, a 74 mile shorter version, was a more realistic option, but it seemed a somewhat comfortable, achievable option, and I think in reflection that at this point in my life I needed to escape that comfort zone. I felt like I’d rather fail at something difficult than succeed at something more achievable.    Many of life’s greatest adventures start off by taking the more difficult route, and I’ve always been a sucker for adventure.  My initial hope was to make it to mile 100 or so, with the goal of returning the next year to complete the whole thing.    

Then something funny happened as I put the work in over an intense six-week training period.  About two weeks before the Belgian Waffle Ride it occurred to me as I conquered more difficult training ride after more difficult ride that perhaps – just perhaps – I might actually be able to complete the thing. 

What surprised me most about endurance training was just how quickly the body adapts.  A lot of it comes down to the vagaries of biological adaptation involving modifications in muscle and mitochondrial numbers/efficiency, nervous system changes, and changes in gene expression, but I always assumed that these processes would be slow.    I had no idea that one could adapt so quickly, seeing sizable fitness gains after only a few intense rides.   The old adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” isn’t only a cute saying, but it’s a biological truth.  

One thing that you can’t learn in six weeks though is how not to be scared out of your wits descending Del Dios Road in a massive, fast, dense pack of twitchy, waffle-infused road riders.

Descending Del Dios. Photo by Canyon BWR

I am like a fish out of water on roads.  Descending Del Dios towards the Lemontwistenberg section faster than I’ve ever ridden before with a large pack of riders who at least appear to largely know what they are doing is somewhat uncomfortable. 

I hold on to my handlebars for dear life and fly down the hill.   Wheeeeee.   As we approach the bottom the leaders from wave one start riding back up the road on the other side.

The descent flattens out and we turn a sharp left into Lemontwistenberg, the first single track gravel section just as the large, fast, angry front of wave three catches us from behind and engulfs us.  I look over to Michael and he mouths the words “oh shit”.    

Within moments waves two and three crush together into the single-track section and a scene out of a World War II movie commences, slow motion and all.   Some of the riders who appear to be unaccustomed to dirt start to panic and fly off into bushes, into each other, or aren’t in the right gear and get halfway up an incline before stopping suddenly, stacking everyone up behind them. 

One guy makes it halfway up a hill, stops, and then pitches over sideways.  You can’t get this sort of comedy anywhere else.   I jump off my bike, pick it up, and cyclocross it around one of the bottlenecks.  This is the one part of the race that I am most comfortable with – close quarters dirt mayhem!    Guys are in the bushes changing tubes and lost water bottles are distributed here and there like chocolate sprinkles on a cake.   Shell-shocked hikers and walkers stand by the side of the trail, mouths agog, I suspect reconsidering their hiking plans for the day.

It would be easy for me to suggest that I didn’t contribute to the chaos, and while I mostly kept out of the fray, I certainly didn’t help things.

A wider section of Lemontwistenberg taken on a training ride. I didn’t have any available hands to take photos during the race!

Leading up to the event my bike’s cassette had become quite worn and the day before the event shifting had become a bit erratic.   What would happen was that my electronic Di2 shifter would reach 10 of my 11 gears at a time, and so I would either lose my highest or lowest gear.    I needed the tiny ring for the descent of Del Dios, but now that I was riding through an area that can only be described as resembling “trench warfare with a few punchy climbs”, I needed my top climbing gear back.    There’s a way that you can make Di2 shifter adjustments on the device itself through its junction box, although that’s generally done on bike stands in nice quiet garages. 

Well, here I was, riding Lemontwistenberg in a cloud of dust, making derailleur adjustments with one hand, moving at the flow of the traffic while trying to avoid water bottles, twitching corpses, bikes, and rocks with the other hand.   While I successfully adjusted the derailleur to get my granny gear back (and I’d leave it there until the end of the ride), my split focus did cause me to hit a couple of rocks awkwardly and make the people around me say things like “wow, that was a close one!”

A quick climb out of the dirt by the Lake Hodges dam soon follows and things settle down.   Unfortunately, in the mayhem I have already lost Michael and others who I had been with on the Del Dios descent.

The plan was simple, like my friend Jake.  But unlike Jake, this plan just might work.

Pacing is key, and “slow and steady” was the only way I was going to complete this thing.   I needed to run the slowest race I could to survive. Slow, deliberate athletic output can get you a lot further than you have any right going.

Hodgee stands guard over Lake Hodges

And so, with three days to go, it was with dismay that I read that there was a new rule enforcing a 10:30 cutoff at mile 44.   It would mean that for the first 44 miles I would have to go somewhat faster than I had been training for, otherwise I would get DNF’d at mile 44 when I got there.     I would be forced to do the one thing that everyone had said one shouldn’t do in an endurance race:  start hard and fast. 

I am riding hard and fast as I fly east on the Lake Hodges gravel trail with a relatively fast group of riders, a trail I know very well and am confident on.  I am off the roads and back on the dirt where I belong.   There is a big backlog of riders at the water crossing, so I pick up the bike and hop across the stones to bypass the queuing bodies.  A partly cloudy sky drapes over us, keeping the air cool, and I am thankful for the near perfect weather today as my pace picks up and I start to feel warmed up.

Moody skies greet us above the Mule trail on a nice quiet training day.

The Hodges – Mule trail section is fun, fast, and interesting because it has two very different personalities.  The western half is quite smooth and getting smoother with every round of trail maintenance that is made, while the eastern half remains bumpy and sandy. 

As I approach the first official aid station at approximately the half-way point of this stretch, I look in amazement as at least fifty riders are stopped in front of it, clogging up the entire trail.   Why does it appear everyone except me is stopping already for an aid station?  Have they opened a full bar or something?  Why has everyone left their bikes in the middle of the trail?   How am I going to get through?

The bumpy, eastern part of Mule trail keeps you on your toes with sections of sand and loose gravel.

Fortunately, a handful of others behind me are trying to ride through too. After some frenzied shouts, pleas, and close-calls between thru-riders and the walking dead who are gorging themselves at the aid station, we beat a path through the fray and continue east, flying through the bumpy, sandy eastern section and on to Highlands Valley Road.

The Highlands Valley Road climb almost did me in the first time I climbed it in training.  I thought it was one of the most difficult climbs on the entire BWR route when I first started because it just never seemed to end, and some of the inclines were pretty steep.   As you ascend it is like getting punched in the face. You think you’re done and check out your bleeding nose, only to be punched again a few more times.

The Highlands Valley Road climb almost killed me the first time I climbed it in training.

Today, however, I’m fresh and full of energy, and this is now my third time climbing this set of hills.   I know it will eventually end.   I am also filled with a full tank of pasta-power, including last night’s farfalle and meat sauce special, and ready to take this hill on.    I suck down a cliff energy shot, drink some water, adjust my sunglasses, and start climbing.

One of the things one must discover when taking on long rides like this is not only how to deal with discomfort and pain, but perhaps more importantly how to stay mentally positive and focused.   It is so easy to lose hope, shut down, and quit – particularly for those who like me are riding at their physical limits.

Training with friends on the Hodges trail heading towards Highlands Valley Road

The single best trick I used throughout was thinking after completing anything of any difficulty, “That part is complete.  It is done.  It doesn’t have to be done again.  Ever again, if I want.   The rest of the ride is now, factually speaking, easier.”    This idea of “the future being easier” with every pedal stroke is powerful, because it puts you in a mental state where everything you have encountered so far isn’t making you more tired and sore – it’s making your end goal closer and easier.  It is the optimist’s view.  You can use this thought before you even start a hard section too.   “Here’s double peak.  It’s a few hundred feet climb, and then it’s done for good”.    Even while climbing you can say to yourself, “400 feet done, don’t have to do those again”.  Everything is much easier when broken into a set of mini-challenges that you not only conquer, but whose conquering brings the grand challenge closer to completion.

Another thing I remind myself of when training and racing is that “135 miles” or whatever the mileage is in any loop-based ride contains a good deal of descents too (equal in elevation magnitude, actually, at least in the 3 dimensions that we care about).    There are stretches of the BWR where it’s mostly downhill for miles at a time.    Reminding yourself that it’s not all 135 DIFFICULT miles is important to help put the event in perspective.

Another interesting psychological trick I had heard about was visualizing yourself as a jet with a long aerodynamic nose when riding into a headwind, and that this could actually make you feel the wind less.   

The greatest friend of the endurance rider though, I discovered, is distraction.  Music lets one disassociate in part from the riding going on, and when things got tough, my music got louder.   I’d sing if need be, rock out to the beat, or otherwise enjoy my favorite songs.  I had an ancient iPod shuffle attached to my helmet with motorcycle helmet speakers that I had rigged up inside, which would theoretically give me 10 hours of music.

New friend Christina and I charge up Highlands Valley Road together

Another form of distraction that I use right now as I climb Highland Valley Road is chatting with fellow riders.   A strong, friendly rider named Christina from Orange County who has just completed a half-ironman rides with me up the series of climbs, and we chat away the whole time about family, friends, and riding.  

By the time we reach the top, I have hardly noticed the steep, endless climb of Highland Valley Road at all.

Continue to Part 2 …..