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Saratoga 24: 500+ kms in the rain fuelled by maple syrup

Posted by Greg Hardwick at

I am not an exceptional cyclist. But I can plan; I can endure; I can roll with the punches and readjust; and I like to think that I am pretty good at eating ☺. This is why I believed I was up to the challenge of 24hr racing. Employed fulltime and as the mother of two children, it’s hard to justify all the time on the bike (that I love so much) without a goal, so, I signed up for the Saratoga 24, a 24hr non-drafting road race in New York State.  An honest goal for me for sure. Over the spring, I trained on the bike and also “practiced” my nutrition strategy in the lead up to the event. I made a nutrition plan based on what had worked for me in the past on long rides, mainly what I did for the 200 miles of Dirty Kanza in 2015. In short, the plan was to:

  1. Try to eat as much real food as possible.
  2. Hydrate with SkratchLabs exercise hydration blend
  3. Have a variety of foods on hands so there would always be something I’d want to eat.

The course was a 63.5km loop. My car was parked at the start/finish of each lap and I would have a crew member (cycling friends who volunteer to do this are THE BEST!) there to help me pick up fresh bottles, nutrition, facilitate any clothing exchanges (that did mean at one point in the night, Linda helping me wrestle out of a soaking wet sports bra), and tend to any mechanical issues with the bike(s). There was water at the neutral checkpoint midway through the lap, and I had brought a camelback in case it got really hot.  Heat was not a factor (AT ALL!) so I never needed any more than two bottles per lap.

The weather forecast was getting worse and worse in the days leading up to the race, calling for heavy rainfall, thunderstorms, and a chance of ‘small hail’.  Regardless, I started off on my road bike equipped with clip on aero bars and Enve 6.7 wheels. I also brought my TT bike but didn’t end up riding it at all, under the conditions, the road bike felt like the right bike for job. I used an “Ass Saver” (couldn’t fit real fenders on this bike), which meant that I couldn’t have a saddle bag so I put a tube, CO2, and multitool in my jersey pocket. Bigger fixes would warrant a call to the crew. In my Bento Box with the spare battery and cable for the Garmin, a couple of naproxen and gravol ginger (you never know), an ipod and headphones, and an extra Endurance Tap maple syrup gel. I had my phone double bagged in a jersey pocket too. I wore the same jersey for the whole 24hrs so that I wouldn’t have to empty pockets, everything stayed in there. I rotated food through the jersey pockets but mostly used the rain coat pocket for food.

For the first lap, I optimistically wore a jersey and shorts as it was only raining lightly. I wore the Poc TT helmet with the clear lens shield for the first lap. Shortly into the second lap, I put on my rain jacket, never to take it off again until the race was over, it was raining so hard, I had to take the shield off the visor because I couldn’t see anything through the streaked lens. I never put the shield back on. I tried glasses at some point but again, it rained too hard and I couldn’t see anything. At the end of it, I was impressed that my eyes and contact lenses still worked after so much rain drifted into them.  As the day went on, I kept on adding clothes. I changed my shorts, socks, bra, and baselayer every 2-3 laps (130-195km). It was such a great feeling to get into new shorts and a dry bra/baselayer!  The rain made it a slower change but skin integrity at the end demonstrated that it was worth it. At first I wore a sleeveless mesh baselayer but by night time, I was wearing a long sleeve merino baselayer that I usually wear to ski. Around 7pm, I put embro on my legs (yes, in July!). Around 10pm, I put knee warmers on too, and switched to full fingered gloves. I later switched to even warmer softshell full fingered gloves. I wore neoprene booties the whole time and wool socks after the first change. I know that the cold is my downfall. I tried to keep the stops short to make sure I didn’t get cold. Bringing ALL the clothes proved to be the right decision as I ended up wearing nearly all of them.

I stuck to my HR plan (149 bpm) and was pretty much last after the first lap. It never feels good to be last. I remember looking at my Garmin and seeing 25km and thinking that this was going to be a long, lonely day out there. There was nothing particularly interesting about the course. There were three patches with broken glass, two train crossings, two really long red lights that a bike couldn’t trigger, traffic, a trailer park, broken roads, lots of turns (the cue sheet was 2 pages long! I kept it in a ziplock bag in my jersey pocket in case I got really lost), and not much elevation at all. The course markers were tiny (arrows spraypainted on the shoulder of the road) and JUST before the turn, which made it really hard to see in the rain. I took three wrong turns (but realized and corrected quickly) over the course of the race. Oops!

The nutrition plan played out well. I drank pineapple Skratch during the day and switched to green tea + lemons flavour at night and added Smooth Caffeinator Picky Bars (they are gluten free!) for a little extra caffeine at night. I had Endurance Tap maple syrup shots, Skratch fruit drops, and mostly real solid food of some type. I had bananas, boiled new potatoes with rosemary and sea salt, PB and J on GF bread, homemade Feedzone Portables Blueberry Chocolate Chip Rice Cakes (I omitted the chocolate chips as I figured I’d get tired of the sweetness), homemade banana zucchini oatmeal PB chocolate chips bites, and, my favourite, mushed avocado and sweet potato chips on gluten free bread (one slice of bread folded in half fits nicely in one hand for eating on the bike and the sweet potato chips add a very welcomed “crunch” in mostly soft food).  

I was motivated to get the women’s course record, which seemed rather low at 202 miles. I got it with about 11 hours still to go and then turned my attention to trying to reach 500km. It was a totally arbitrary goal but by that point, after 13 hours riding in the rain, I needed something to keep me going, arbitrary or not.

The dark was the worst part. I rode SUPER slowly on those nightly laps. It felt super sketch with the rain and fog. I really didn’t anticipate riding so slowly in the dark. I hadn’t done a ton of night riding in training and definitely not in the rain. I probably should have doubled up on the lights; it might have given me more confidence.

Around 3am, I got super sleepy about halfway through the lap, nearly sleeping on the bike, so when I finished that lap, I changed into a dry kit, put a tuque and down jacket on, cranked up the heat in the car, and fell asleep in the driver’s seat. I got woken up 20 minutes later and took a while to get going again. I hadn’t thought that I’d be able to fall asleep just like that but it was no problem at all and I definitely could have slept WAY longer but I got back on the road to finish off the last few hours of riding. Just as the sun was rising, I noticed that a massive tree had fallen across the road, likely a result of all the rain, wind, and lightning. So, the 24hr road race ended up also including a hike-a-bike in the woods to get around the tree. Always an adventure!  

Over the course of the event, I kept waiting for something to fall apart: A big mechanical, a body part fail, a plague of locusts…nothing happened, it was a low level of banal suffering the whole time. My bike worked great, the body felt strong the whole time. I was worried that I would feel the effect of the crash from 2 weeks prior. The only thing that really hurt was the left shoulder, the one I used to overcompensate when the right elbow was hurt in the crash. The nutrition strategy worked, no GI issues at all; I peed 5 or 6 times so was well hydrated. I definitely didn’t feel like eating on the bike much anymore at the end, and that’s where the Endurance Tap gels were clutch. Such simple, effective fuel. I rode on, and on, and on. It was unpleasant but not awful; the night was scary but not debilitating; I was never given a real reason to stop so I didn’t. I didn’t know until the Monday morning when the results were posted that I had come 2nd overall or what margins were between the racers. I also didn’t know that a bunch of riders had abandoned in the night. I later read that one guy abandoned because it was raining so hard he couldn’t see. So I know that I can keep riding when others will throw in the towel. I can ride more than 500km in one day, I can keep going with little point other than to finish what I started. I know that now and I didn’t when that day started. I learned a lot about myself on the day and am confident in my ability to endure mild discomfort and a feeling of pointlessness for a good long while. First (and only) woman, 2nd overall, women’s course record bested by 120 miles.

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