Monday, October 10, 2011

Pennsylvania is way too far to go to suck

I continued my love-hate relationship with endurance racing this past weekend with the Ironcross race in Pennsylvania.  The weather was expected to be absolutely gorgeous, perfect conditions for an over-heater like myself. I love epic rides this time of year in the woods. The trees are turning color, the bugs are gone, and the trails tend to be dry. The terrain in south-central PA is a blast to ride in too. Long ridge lines divide deep valleys. The forest is decidedly hardwood and much more open than evergreen dominant forests in the northeast. The race is held in Michaux State Forest, and the Appalachian trail runs through the middle of it.

I had high expectations this year. Andy Applegate, who always wins the master's field, and a couple other strongmen weren't signed up. That meant not only was a podium finish a strong possibility, but potentially a win. Over one hundred were pre-registered in the M40+ field. I figured the racing and training I've done over the last couple months should have set me up well. The Vermont 50 and Hampshire 100 events are longer and more brutal than Ironcross. Just only if I could tame the cramping demon...

I mixed the highest concentration of electrolytes ever in my drink mix. Since wearing a Camelbak worked so well at the VT50, I was going to do that again. Start with 70 ounces, then mid race, swapped for a second Camelbak with 70 ounces. Only one stop needed.  I had about 3000mg of sodium total in the two Camelbaks, more than twice what I've consumed during an endurance race before. This was 18 Tablytes tablets crushed plus what comes in Gatorade mix.  I was sure to take a flip-top vial with additional Tablytes too. If I still cramped with this much supplemental electrolytes in cool weather, my problem is not electrolyte or hydration related.

I had a second experiment going for this year's race. I wanted to try a mountain bike again. In 2003 I used a hardtail with great success, but the course was much more rugged than today's course. In 2008 and 2009, I used a cross bike, doing well both times. I never flatted in these three races. I was brought my Superfly with beefy 2.25" Schwalbe Racing Ralph tubeless ready tires. I pumped them up rock hard to 40/42psi F/R. I figured with such voluminous tires, I was flat proof and even contemplated not bringing a spare with inflator. Silly thought...

I grabbed a Starbucks grande dark roast on my way to the venue in the morning. It's nice this race starts at a reasonable 9am time. Somehow I still missed my exit of I-81. It was 8 friggin miles to the next one and there were cops hiding behind every overpass. You couldn't speed and you couldn't cut through an emergency cross over. That killed 20 minutes. I wasn't too flustered. I still had plenty of time.

After a minimal warmup, we staged in a field about 30 across. About 100ft ahead, the course necked down to 5 across. Hmmmm, this ought to be interesting. We got a late start and all of us were shivering in short sleeves. I think this is the first time I started Ironcross without at least arm warmers on. The temp was about 50, expecting to go above 80F.

No call-ups this year. We were lectured on how to self-seed. Only if you finish in about 4hrs should you be in the front row. I was 4:09 last time, so I took front row. I had no delusions of claiming the holeshot. I expected carnage. We go. I stayed in top 20 guys or so, but there was healthy does of contact. I almost locked bars with guy on my right. We circle through the freshly cut deep grass, which with the dew, stuck to body and bike. The start-finish was new this year, and there was a brief run-up right away. I could easily have ridden it on my MTB had everybody in front of me not dismounted.

Very shortly we were into the first climb. It starts paved, then gated, bony fire road. Knowing I was on a heavier bike with slightly higher rolling resistance, I let the lead guys go. In prior years, I stayed with them on this climb. I figured I'll easily regain the lead pack on the Lippencote singletrack descent, since half of them will be walking parts of it and the others dabbing everywhere.

With less than 20 guys ahead of me, I counted no less than 4 flats in the first mile of fire road. One was Gunnar Shogren, who flatted again later in the race.  I settled in with a pretty good group of 4-5 guys. We kept picking up others spewed out of the lead group. We had ourselves a nice chase group and everybody worked. Some rolling hills on pavement brought us to the base of the second climb, again, paved to start. A left onto another fire road continued the climbing. This road was chocked full of hazards too. The gravel here is more like broken glass than stones. It's all sharp, shaly stuff. Eventually we reached the Lippencote singletrack track. I've never cleaned this trail on a CX bike. Today I made sure I was first in my group and didn't back. Yeah, baby! A 29er made kid's play of this trail. I promptly dropped the gang I was riding with. I had fun! Before the bottom of this 2mi plummet, I caught riders from the lead group. This is exactly what I wanted to happen. Take it easier on the climbs, let the bike work for me on the technical bits, not worrying about finessing to avoid flats.

At the bottom, the SRAM neutral support vehicle was there swapping a broken wheel out for Derek Treadwell. He hopped back on just as I passed. We worked together on the pavement. Actually, it was mostly Derek working. He was on a cross bike and was wicked strong. I did not know it at the time, but he would be the eventual overall winner, even though he destroyed a wheel at the beginning of the Lippencote descent. We turned onto Rt 30, which is slightly down hill. Derek was drilling it at 35mph to catch the leaders just up the road. I turned myself inside out just to stay in his draft. He kept motioning for me to pull through, which I did a few times, but eventually threw in the towel. Bye-bye. Doing a little research on Derek shows he won the Mt Washington July 2011 race with a time of 57 minutes. Yep, he should be able to rip my legs off.

My legs suddenly weren't feeling so chipper anymore. I downed a bag of Gu Chomps. I still had a lot of fluids left in my Camelbak. I new the Wigwam "run-up" was coming soon. At the top, the mid point of the race, I'd swap out my Camelbak.

I never lose time on Wigwam. Maybe nobody does. There is about 20 minutes of suckfest hiking. The lower portion is so steep it borders on rock scrambling. Indeed, several times I put a hand out to catch myself. Trees are handy to help pull yourself up too. This is anything but a "run" up. I averaged about 1.5mph and it was by far my hardest effort of the race. I was seeing cross-eyed, I was breathing so hard. I also learned my 29er is not very shoulder friendly. The cables run underneath, and a big cable boss is in the worst possible place. It was tearing a hole into my shoulder.

There's a brief lull in the Wigwam climb where you can actually briefly get on your bike. When I did, both inner thighs seized on me. WTF! I wasn't even two hours into this race. Where did that come from? There was no warning. That was soul crushing. Once this happens, there is no way to stave off the inevitable. I was right back into bike-carry mode on 30% grade loose cantaloupes to the top and was ok on my feet.

Talk about service, by the time I reached Checkpoint #2, a volunteer was putting my Camelbak on as fast as I could take the first one off! I had my race number on it, and they must have had someone calling out numbers ahead. Impressive, and much appreciated. I left CP2 in around 10th place overall, about the same as in 2009. I was psyched, as this was surely a masters podium position, but I now realized major disappointment was heading my way. I had no idea how much...

On the ridgeline, my legs didn't feel right. How could I go from feeling perfect to all crampy in just minutes so early in a race. I had plenty of fluids, tons of electrolytes, and it was still cool out. I soft pedaled the ridge and started to hemorrhage places.

I knew a fast descent was coming right up. Perhaps I'll recover some. This is another shaly stone road with many embedded rocks sticking way up. I ripped it, 40+ mph. I was thinking weeeeeee all the way down, until pfffffttttt, thump, thump, thump. What the... Stan's sealant spewed all over me and the bike. I quickly tried to get what Stan's was left to seal the hole. It was big enough to put a pencil through, right in the tread! Stan's wasn't going to cover that. I didn't even feel what did this.  I started to go into hissy fit mode. I haven't fixed a flat on the trail in a long time, and during a race, even longer. Ironic, isn't it, that I bring burly MTB tires so I WOULDN'T FLAT?

Well, wouldn't you know it, as I'm contemplating throwing my bike over the edge, I notice a camera is in my face. Yeah, it was Thom Parsons with That's just great, now the whole world will see my hissy fit. Perhaps my initial "frustration" didn't get captured. I show up about 3:40 into the highlights video below. Nice work, Thom!

Watch more video of NoTubes Iron Cross 2011 on

Thirty riders must have flown past me by the time I was back on my bike. At this point, I went into get-this-suckfest-over-with mode. Another punchy climb ensued. I cramped spectacularly before reaching the top. Multiple times I had to jump off my bike and stand with both knees locked out. Even the slightest knee bend caused immediate inner thigh and quad seizure. F-bombs! Now even old guys packing girth and girls were passing me. I walked a while. From the top a long descent ensued. I was nervous, having used both CO2 cartridges and not having another spare tube. I feared the tube I put in could blow through the cut too.

The rest of the race became a blur to me. There seemed to be a lot more singletrack than I remember from prior years. This part of the course was pretty muddy too.  With my granny gear, I was able to ride most of it without cramping. There was still one more hike-a-bike section, but nothing like Wigwam Hill. From the top of it, it was pretty much all downhill on paved road to the finish. I had to straight-leg it over the barriers at the finish, a rather anti-climactic finish to such a brutal race.

I finished in 4:31, good for 8th out of 85 M40+, 22 minutes slower than 2009 on a course that was slightly shorter this year. There were only three people to finish in under 4hrs this year though. I think maybe the muddy singletrack towards the end slowed things down a bit. I was way off the podium and not even in the cash. That was so far from my expectations at the outset of this race. I dearly love a course like this and used to thrive in events like these.
So is a MTB faster than a CX bike on this course? No! That part of my experiment was an epic fail. I think a mountain bike is a lot more fun, but you will be less competitive on one. It is much harder to stay with a group on the fast road sections. If I come back, it will be on a cross bike with tubeless wheels. Many of the leaders were running these. I have brand new wheels, I just haven't moved quickly enough to get tires in time.

So what about the electrolytes experiment? I've convinced myself hydration and electrolyte problems are not the source of my cramping. It is probably much more structural than that. Is it age related? Do I need add strength training to my routine? Jon Speer said he conquered cramps only by building up to very long rides at continuous 70% max heartrate. Perhaps my running is a factor. Although my cramping problems started building long before I started running. I feel running has degrade the quality of my hardest workouts this summer because I'm not getting as much recovery. One thing is clear: even though I've backed off some at the start of these endurance races, I am cramping sooner each year.

Why is it other guys like DaveP or BrettR can ride for hours much closer to their VOmax than I can to my VOmax? It just doesn't scale. Brett told me today he's cramped only once in the last several years, and that was at the Everest Challenge race, two back to back 6+ hour days of stage racing. I DNF'd the first day there due to cramping. I rarely bonk and never feel fatigued when I cramp. I'm still ready to rip, it's just the legs want to fire on their own.

I learned today that caffeine can cause muscle spasms in athletes. The Starbucks coffee I chugged right before the race had a staggering 330mg of caffeine. Then the Chomps I ate just before Wigwam Hill had another 40mg, and the Clif Mocha gel I had after Wigwam contained another 50mg. Oh, the coffee at the hotel too. I might have had 500mg of caffeine before my cramping peaked. A connection? I don't know. I'm done grasping for magic bullets on this one. If there was an expert out there that could diagnose my source of cramping with remedial course of action with 90% success, I would pay big bucks for this guy. Thousands maybe. Dropping five grand on a tricked out carbon cross bike doesn't mean squat when you lose 20 minutes due to cramping.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Another serious complication of rhabdomyolysis is called the compartment syndrome whereby muscle injury leads to swelling and increased pressure in a confined space (a compartment). This leads to compromised circulation which can endanger the affected tissue. The ......compartment syndrome is most common after injury in the lower leg---(OR ANKLE?)....... or the muscles of the abdominal wall and can require emergency surgery.

Anonymous said...

Rhabdomyolysis from statins: What's the risk?

How do you know if you have rhabdomyolysis from statin use?

from Thomas Behrenbeck, M.D., Ph.D.

Although mild muscle pain is a relatively common side effect of statins, some people who take statin medications to lower their cholesterol ..........may have severe muscle pain........... This intense pain is a symptom of rhabdomyolysis (rab-do-mi-OL-ih-sis), a rare condition that causes muscle cells to break down.

Anonymous said...

500 mg of caffeine! Holy $@#*. Everyone is different but I cramp at over 150mg but I don't drink coffee daily and only consume for race situations. Caffeine is a diuretic which means it is dehydrating your fluids and electrolytes even if you are shoveling them in at epic rates. I have got to believe that much caffeine messes with your absorption of electrolytes and fluids. Maybe cut back on the daily caffeine so 200mg feels like 500mg on race day and you actually might absorb some of those electrolytes. Have you tried sportslegs? Those can help also.



CB2 said...

The story was going so good too!
Sorry to hear about your misfortune Doug.

I would tend to agree w/ Bob about the caffeine. I'm a mover and shaker; a coffee achiever, but a strong medium sized coffee (FYI, dark roasts actually have less caffeine in them than regular roasts, I guess the extra roasting does that, but Starbucks is still stronger than what I brew at home), after already having some crappy hotel coffee and then supplementing that with even more caffeine would definitely mess me up. Race day I have about 14-16 oz of coffee at about 6:00 AM no matter what time my race starts, and no more until after.
Come down for the TdT. We have burritos.

DaveP said...

Seems like staying with Derek Treadwell for a bit, overanalyzing, taking it all too seriously, consuming all that caffeine, overtraining, running, no complete rest days, blah-blah-blah is now working against you.

Relax, be more flexible, drink more water, consider cramping isn't really the core issue here, so on and so forth.

Good luck!

The Preacher

Anonymous said...

Bob back here. I don't know you but I hate to see a fellow cyclist struggle with something like nutrition related cramping. The more I think about it the more I believe you are going into race day with deficits in the essential electrolytes (calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium). The first two take weeks or months to absorb and supplements on race day won't help. Caffeine blocks absorption of all of these and if you drink a lot regularly you are probably deficient. Have you ever been diagnosed with deficiency in calcium or magnesium or related disorders? (like early signs of osteoporosis or irregular heart beat) This might be evidence that your caffeine intake and/or diet are preventing good electrolyte absorption. Calcium and magnesium are retained at the cellular level so it takes weeks or months of proper nutrition to set this right so I would encourage you to think much broader than you are about the cramping problem.


PS Age exacerbates absorption issues so caffeine intake we used to tolerate may not work as we grow older.

Hill Junkie said...

Bob - you have some great insight in this matter. Not sure how long you've been following along here, but last December I was diagnosed with Osteopenia. I got a bone density scan after shattering my ankle in May 2010. My numbers were scary low, lower than my mother's. I started running this year and now take a Calcium/D supplement. I have my first follow-up scan next month.

I had known for some time that pure cyclists are vulnerable to low bone density. Studies have found cyclists in the pro peloton with bone densities of 70 year old men. Heavy sweating with no impact creates this problem. I've also known that certain foods, like colas and coffee, can muck with absorption of minerals and vitamins. I always assumed eating a diet generous in calcium had me covered.

I just read that 30% of Americans consume >600mg of caffeine daily. My intake is probably 500-900mg per day. I drink only three cups of coffee per day, but they are strong cups from starbucks beans. The caffeine I consumed on race day, although high, is quite typical of what I consume every morning.

So back to your point. Perhaps as I'm getting older, caffeine is having an increasingly detrimental effect on me. I know there are coaches out there that completely wean their athletes from caffeine. Others are more neutral on it. I truly enjoy a fine cup of coffee, especially anything from a Starbucks Clover machine (super high-end French press and strongest coffee you will find anywhere). I don't see myself giving it up completely, but maybe throttling back. I could easily refrain from any caffinated energy food on the bike.

I'm really skeptical that there's a magic bullet in all of this. I think cramping in most people is a multi-faceted problem that takes a while to work out, if ever. Let me know if you have any further insights.

Anonymous said...

I take your point that average American consumes a comparable amount of caffeine but 66% percent of Americans are either overweight or obese. I’ll go way out on a limb and speculate that 99.99% of Americans would have cramped far before 2 hours in that race can’t even come close to do what you do on a bike. I think your benchmark needs to be other elite athletes and ideally elite athletes over 45 because let’s face it none of us are getting away with the stuff we did in our 30’s.
Look at the end of the day I just some guy from the internet posting on your blog and I could be completely wrong about all this but let’s consider the facts for a minute:
-Caffeine interferes with the absorption of key minerals and electrolytes like calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium (FYI-particularly when taken within an hour of those consuming those 4)
-Deficiencies in these 4 can lead to cramping
-You are cramping more than you athletic peers and your caffeine consumption seems to be on the high side (to me but then again I don’t partake except on race day)
-You’ve clearly also got a calcium problem. It is true, however, excessive exercise above 75% of VO2 max has been proven to screw with absorption of calcium and thought to be linked to osteopenia (in addition to loss of calcium through sweat and no impact in our sport). Maybe this is what is contributing to your calcium deficiency. Maybe your caffeine isn’t helping either. Maybe it’s the combination of both.
I won’t pretend to be an expert but don’t you owe it to yourself to figure out if all these things might be linked? I wouldn’t purport that eliminating all caffeine is a good idea b/c let’s face it, it works. It works better, however, when only taken when it matters IMO. A lot of pro endurance athletes use it that way from what I have read.
Absorption is extremely complicated and tricky. The order and timing of what you eat matters almost as much as what you eat. For example, Vitamin D dramatically improves the uptake of calcium and magnesium but if those two are consumed within 1 hour of caffeine they are pretty much useless. This is complicated stuff but you seem like a smart guy and I am guessing if you invested as much mental energy in this as you do optimizing tread patterns and tire pressures you can figure this out (here is a jump start

I suspect once you do a whole lot of other stuff more important is going to start working better as well.
Good luck.


P.S. Love the blog. Keep us posted if this turns up anything useful.

Jonny Bold said...

Wow, thats a lot of info about caffiene. Now for the monkey wrench....I haven't had one single drop of caffiene since October of 2007, but have been dealing with cramps all summer in the long, hilly, hot races.

Its pretty obvious to me. You (I) can't just crush the pedals as hard as possible for as long as you want, sooner or later your glycogen is gone and the cramps will be along shortly if you (I) continue to hammer.

Doug, you mentioned to me that your friend had suggested that doing early season 6 hour rides at 70% MHR would squash the cramping problem. I think thats about right, but who can do that with any sort of regularity? PROs...thats who. You know...those guys that don't cramp.

We just try to do a little more than we're really capable of and end up paying the price. If we went 10-15% easier from the start, we'd probably be fine, but where's the fun in that?

Anonymous said...

There is a much easier explaination then caffiene. you were on a mountain bike with large tires with low pressure competing against guys with smaller width tires with various tire pressure. The power you needed to compete against the cross bikes was greater and you needed to sustain it for longer duration. You may have had some advantages on technical sections but in general you motor was running at a high RPM then those you competed against which probably led to cramping issues.

Hill Junkie said...

Anon - perhaps. But that does not explain why every year I seem to be cramping earlier and more spectacularly in races I've been doing for over 10 years now, on the same bikes. It's not like I'm fogetting how to pace myself. I consider myself a pretty good time-trialist with all the hillclimb events I've done.

Battenkill this spring is an example. The previous two years I crushed the last climb to claim podium spots. This year, cramped and could do nothing. That is 3hr race on same bike I've been using. The race was not harder either.

What I didn't mention in my report was I did a roll-out test on CX and MTB bikes on very slight downhill grade before the day before the race. I could find no measurable difference in speed of two bikes (25+/-0.1sec coasting at 4-10mph). CX bike had 35mm tubed Racing Ralph tires, MTB had 2.2" tubless Racing Ralph tires. I specualate lack of tubes in big tires helped them roll better. Of course, the MTB will be less aero at speed. Next year I will bring tubeless CX tires.

What is interesting, in training rides I do that are pretty close to Ironcross efforts, I don't cramp. A friend's coach suggested I may be too tense in a race scenario and relaxed when nothing is on the line while training, and this may put me over the edge. Ironcross was an A-race for me.

The whole caffeine thing has me thinking. My consumption probably has gone up over the last few years. Wouldn't it be ironic if my low bone density wasn't really due to lack of weight bearing exercise, but diet? Maybe had my diet been better for improved mineral absorption, I wouldn't have broken my ankle, discovered low bone density and had to run for the past year to improve it. Cramping could very well be tied into this. Our bodies are incredibly complicated and everything is connected in a tangled mess.

Davep said...

Isn't there a reason why they call it, America's Longest Cyclocross race? Hey, are you riding your mountain bike at Battenkill next year? I call you, Fred.

Dave said...

Now this is just the type of problem I am working through but higher cadences in easy gears are bringing my cramps. For several months I have laid off alcohol, caffeine, and added table salt. Mild knee discomfort got me to switch from SS/fixed gear to 1x9 and BAM, my 1st cramping episode of the year. In fact, almost every time I ride hard with a high cadence I cramp up. One week I cramped rolling on 1x9and the next week, running 46x16 fixed gear, I did not cramp on the same rolling 31 mile ride.17mph avg with gears and cramps then 19 mph avg with fixed wheel and no cramping. Go figure. I am thinking that I have little slow twitch fibre going for me. Hell, I have been lifting weights hard for the last year and my cramping is as bad as ever. And for the last few months I have made an effort to drink more water every day. Good reading in these comments though.