Yes, we survived, and I finally got around to telling the story. =)
When Jenny and I got our road bikes in June, we knew we needed a cycling goal to motivate us and guide our training. Since I have lots of family in Wichita Falls, including some cousins who rode and actually helped organize the race, my first thought was riding in the Hotter’N Hell race in late August. Two months wasn’t enough time to prepare for the full 100 miles of the long distance, but the 50-mile distance seemed like a reasonable goal.
Wichita Falls is a medium-sized city in northwest Texas, maybe 100,000 people. It doesn’t have enough hotel rooms for all 13,000+ riders plus companions who converge there each August for the race, one of the biggest in the country. All hotel rooms for race weekend are generally booked by springtime. Fortunately, my cyclist cousins graciously allowed us to stay with them so we didn’t have to drive in that morning. As it turned out, my cousin Chuck was planning to ride the 100k distance along with his son Jeff. Perfect!
We arrived Friday evening and enjoyed a tasty pasta dinner (of course!) with Chuck, his wife Debbie, and Jeff before driving to the race expo for packet pickup. I saw these cousins a few times a year growing up, but only rarely now that Jeff and I were adults and some of our family has moved to the Dallas area. They are all experienced cyclists, so we now had a new shared interest and enjoyed talking shop over dinner. The expo was just like a running expo – an anthill of excited people milling about among an army of vendors. The biggest DFW bike shops, including our local shop, set up booths along with Wichita Falls bike shops, the BikeTexas advocacy group, and other vendors selling cycling food, clothing, and other gear.
Saturday morning we dragged ourselves from bed early. Some showers had developed overnight as feared, but they appeared to be staying west of the course, especially the shorter 50-mile and 100k courses. The race was on rain or shine, but that didn’t mean I would feel safe riding for over three hours on slick streets with 13,000 other riders. So I hoped my radar-reading skills were on. We left early to hit the official pancake breakfast in the event center, which included pancakes, sausage, and fruit. Jenny and I loved seeing all the different cycling jerseys – college teams, past Hotter’N Hell races, bike shops, corporate teams, even Marvin the Martian.
At some point I realized I’d committed a serious rookie error and left our tire pump at Chuck and Debbie’s house. Road bikes work best with high pressure in the tires to reduce rolling resistence and prevent punctures, so it’s best to air them up well before riding. Fifty miles on squishy tires would be like rolling through mud. Fortunately, Chuck and Jeff hadn’t left yet, so they brought us our pump. In all the busyness of getting our bikes and gear ready near the start area, we also forgot to attach our timing chips. Next time, we’ll try to get to the site earlier so we won’t be so rushed.
Finally, we reached our starting corral. The organizers put the 100-mile riders, who consitute the majority, in front with the shorter distances lining up in back. Imagine roughly 13,000 riders in a huge herd, a street’s width wide and half a mile, maybe even a mile long. It was an amazing and thrilling sight, perhaps a bit like troops lining up to prepare for a great battle. Chuck and Jeff were maybe 100-200 yards ahead for the 100k, so we didn’t see them again until after the race. Around 7:00am we sang the anthem and enjoyed a four-plane flyover from nearby Sheppard Air Force Base, which we would ride through near the end of the race. One thing we didn’t realize, being noobs, is that the race used a staggered start and separated each group by about 10 minutes. So Jenny and I waited on our bikes, and waited, and waited, until we finally got to start rolling around 7:45am. Had we known, we could’ve taken our time during preparation or even gotten a bit more sleep. With little space to maneuver or ride fast and a long way to go, it took five minutes just to reach the starting line. But we were off!
We’d been riding our road bikes for two months. Jenny’s longest ride prior to the race was 40 miles, mine 35. So we knew we wouldn’t be competing for a medal. Jenny had been riding longer on a spin bike at the gym, but I was more experienced on a real bike on the road. We agreed in advance that we were Team Box and would ride “no drop”, meaning neither would leave the other behind. We started with a gentle pace early to avoid burning ourselves up before reaching the finish line. The forecast called for a headwind on the final quarter of the course, so we had to leave something in the tank. Any bike race has supplies and gear (SAG) trucks patrolling the course to help people who get hurt, wear out, or have bike trouble, but we were determined not to SAG out. We took turns in the lead. Drafting off each other wasn’t really helpful because we were so slow (13-15mph), but that way we each had the chance to set the pace.
The showers did stay west of us as expected, and the temperature cooperated as well – maybe low 70s at start time. Riding at sunrise with my wife and thousands of other bike enthusiasts was such a blast. After a few miles, the crowd thinned a bit, giving us more room to maneuver. It was still pretty crowded, though. Riding full-speed would have been a challenge. So we just enjoyed the journey and tried to keep a decent pace. The route took us out of Wichita Falls along country roads and through a few small towns, much different from my normal trails and suburbia. Hundreds of locals lined the course to cheer us on, holding signs and ringing bells. This race is one of the biggest events of the year for the area, and the residents strongly support it.
The rest stops were crowded like we expected, but the tons of volunteers did a great job filling our tanks. Refreshments varied by rest stop. Our favorite was called Margaritaville, the next-to-last stop. The rest stop crew had brought in sand to create a small beach, hired a live band, and decorated the whole area to look like a tropical resort. Plus they had Oreos! I tried to eat something at each rest stop, whether my own gel or bars or something I picked up there such as energy chews. As in a marathon, in a long bike ride like this, cyclists burn thousands of calories, so we need to take in some fuel along the way to keep our energy up.
After the halfway mark, our route took us mostly east until Margaritaville and then south into a 10-15mph southeast wind. Up to a point, you can ride into the wind, but it can be a huge challenge. If your speed is 15mph and you’re fighting a 15mph headwind, it feels like getting hammered by a 30mph wind. We just shifted to a low gear and tried to pedal fast (spin) so it took less effort to keep moving. Pushing hard in a high gear wears your quads out fast. On the final 10-15 miles, plowing straight into the wind and uphill in some stretches, we passed several people who had stopped on the side of the road to rest. I don’t blame them. It was really tough, especially at the end of the course for every distance when we were all tired already. Jenny and I had been out 2.5-3 hours by the time we entered this final stretch. It made me glad we’d taken it easy in the beginning.
Sheppard and The End
With just a few miles to go, we passed through Sheppard Air Force Base, where my grandfather taught aircraft mechanics and planned logistics and exercises for many years. It felt a bit odd to just ride my bike onto a military base past an armed guard, but I was thrilled at the chance. Passing various buildings on the base, I wondered whether my grandfather had worked in any of them. Next the course took a turn through two rows of beautiful military aircraft. I wasn’t sure whether pictures were allowed – it was a military base, after all – but then I saw several airmen posing with riders next to a fighter, so I stopped for a few pics. On the way out, we rode through two lines of enthusiastic air cadets who were cheering us on. They’d probably been out there for hours already, but they seemed genuinely happy to be there supporting us. I appreciated that.
We debated a max-effort finish, at least as much as our exhausted legs could put out, but decided against it. Finally, we crossed the finish line!
Final tally per my Cyclemeter iPhone app: 52.25 miles in 3:50:52, not counting rest stops, and total calorie burn of 2644. For comparison, my half marathon (13.1 miles) in February took 2:00:55 counting rest stops and burned 1703 calories. Although I felt worse at the end of my half marathon, by every numerical measure the Hotter’N Hell 50 was my greatest fitness achievement.
In closing, I want to applaud my wife. For various reasons, including childhood problems with her ankles, she was never really athletic growing up or as a young adult. After Jonathan was born, she decided she wanted to get into shape and joined a gym, where she discovered indoor cycling classes and started toying with the idea of a road bike. Once we both got roadies in June and committed to riding Hotter’N Hell, she took her training seriously, piling indoor and road cycling on top of her hard work caring for our boys and managing the house. It wasn’t easy, but she was determined to finish the full 50 miles and not SAG out. And she did it! I am extremely proud of how hard she worked both in training and during the race. I am also extremely proud of her determination not to give up, even at the end when her legs were spent, her back ached, her hands were tingling, and the wind kept trying to push us away from the finish.
We’re already talking about returning next year, possibly with more cousins, and riding the 100k (62 mile) distance. Thanks again to Chuck and Debbie for being great hosts and to the people of Wichita Falls for putting on a great bike race!