It seems to me that in the Super Randonneur series of brevets (200k, 300k, 400k, and 600k) the biggest step up in difficulty is from the 300k to the 400k. I'm not sure why exactly. Maybe it's because the 400k is the first distance which requires some night riding for all but the very fastest riders. Or maybe because it's the longest distance most Randonneurs do without a sleep stop. It may be because there's just something magical about 400 kilometers (249 miles) and what it does to your body. Whatever it is, I've now experienced it twice and there's no doubt in my mind that the step from 300k to 400k is like going from walking around the block to running a marathon.
On Saturday SiR held their 2010 Spring series 400k. The course was flat by SiR standards with about 7,000 ft of climbing in the entire route. The weather forecast was excellent, with no rain expected and temps in the 50s and 60s, winds would be light. This is the kind of route and forecast that gets a lot of Randonneurs thinking about setting a personal best time for a 400k.
Leaving Seattle behind on the 6:00am ferry
The ride started in Bremerton at 7:00am, so the 6:00am ferry from Seattle was loaded with dozens of bikes and eager randonneurs. On the way over, a lot of people were talking about the fact that the last ferry from Bremerton to Seattle would be at 11:40pm. If you miss that one, you have to wait until 6:20 the next morning. This fact tossed a little more fuel on the fast ride fire. If you finish the ride in about 16 1/2 hours, you can make that last ferry. If not, you share a hotel room with a half dozen other smelly randonneurs in conditions slightly better than a slave ship. 16 1/2 hours for a 400k is pretty darn fast. But... for quite a few, with good weather and a flat course, it's within reach.
Bikes on the ferry
We congregated at the Starbucks in Bremerton as Joe Llona gave the traditional pre-ride pep talk, and then we headed out a few minutes after 7:00. The route would take us out to the coast at Westport, then south to Raymond via 105, and then back North through rolling hills along 101. It followed back roads up to Potlatch state park on Hood Canal and then back to Bremerton.
Since a lot of people were trying to make good time, the name of the game at the start was to find the right group to ride with. On a long flat ride like this one, traveling with a group is much easier than going it alone. Of course, if you find a group that's too slow you'll miss the ferry, and if you find one that's too fast, you end up getting spit out the back in the middle of nowhere, completely cooked and forced to limp in the rest of the way alone. I chose the latter option.
Struggling to stay on the freight train
A few miles out of Bremerton I settled into a long pace line including Mike McHale and several other big strong oxes. On a course that doesn't have much climbing the big guys are always fast. Allen deCamp was also in this pace line. Allen is a strong rider, but like me is built more for the hills than this flat freight train riding. I think we both knew we were going to get worked.
Allen over my shoulder
As the group worked it's way out toward the coast through Shelton, Montesano, Cosmopolis, I was doing all I could to just stay at the back of the line. One of the golden rules of long distance cycling is to avoid letting your heart rate get into "the red zone." Too much time in the red zone and you're cooked. Recovery takes a long time. As we were approaching Westport, I kept falling off the back of the line and then sprinting like mad to catch up again. Every one of those sprints was bringing me closer to the inevitable crash and burn. Finally about two miles from Westport, I fell off the back and decided to let them go. By this point, it was already too late. I was completely cooked. The paceline had been doing better than 20 mph into a head wind. Now on my own, I could barely manage 15 mph. The group was out of sight within a couple of minutes.
This is what I look like when I'm completely cooked
After sitting for a few minutes in Westport and having a sandwich and some other salt delivery mechanisms, I headed off down the coast toward Raymond by myself. With the change in direction, the winds had become favorable. Still even with a tailwind, I was so wrung out that I could barely do 17mph. The paceline I was with before must have been doing 25 mph through this section. But I was happy to be traveling my own comfortable pace.
I took this lovely picture of the guardrail to prove I made it to the coast
Somewhere on the stretch between Westport and Raymond, Michael Gray, Mark Roerhig, and Peter Rankin caught up with me. I rode with them for a while, but quickly realized that I was still too spent to do anything but ride my own pitiful pace, so I dropped off the back once again.
I rode with Michael, Mark and Peter briefly on the way to Raymond
Then a couple miles outside of Raymond I came upon Allen de Camp beside the road with a flat tire. Allen was in the same condition I had been in about an hour back. He had hung on to the Mike McHale freight train for a while longer than I had managed, but also eventually got chewed up and spit out the back. I figured Allen would be the perfect riding partner since at this point neither of us had any loftier goal than to just finish the ride. Allen and I pedaled together at a pitiful pace into Raymond.
At the convenience store in Raymond we saw Michael, Mark, and Peter just about to head out, and then a few minutes later as we were about ready to get back on the road, another group pulled in made up of Bob Brudvik, Robin Pieper, Jan Acuff, Erik Anderson and Rick (?). We chatted briefly and then Allen and I got on the road figuring the group would catch up to us soon enough.
From Raymond we headed North on hwy 101 up and down hills that all looked exactly the same. It was like ground hog day. Climb for twenty minutes, descend down the back side for a couple minutes, repeat. On about the fourth or fifth hill, the group that we saw back in Raymond caught up to us. Neither Allen nor I were completely recovered yet but we decided to join the group so we could get through the rest of the ride a bit faster. At first it felt like a repeat of the too fast freight train from earlier in the day, but eventually we got our legs back and started enjoying the group thang again.
The group I finished with, near Elma
After Elma, the route headed North on a beautiful back road with gentle rollers which was definitely my favorite part of the ride. With very little traffic, we got into a double paceline and chatted and peddle at a comfortable but still fairly quick pace. The sun was getting low in the sky and the light was beautiful. The highlight of this part of the ride for me was riding by the maximum security prison near Shelton. I've never seen so much razor wire in my life. Not that I've ever really considered a life of crime, but that place is enough to keep you living right. As we rejoined 101 again, it was getting dusky so we turned on lights and rode the last couple miles up to Potlatch State Park on Hood Canal.
Joe Llona was at Potlatch with his son and a nice spread of typical Rando food. A cup of noodles was exactly what I needed and Joe had it. The group relaxed and kicked back for a few minutes as we did the math on what we had remaining. We were about 39 miles from the end, and it was a little after 8:00pm. All we had to do was ride 15 mph to make it back to Bremerton with plenty of time to catch the 11:40 ferry. So we rolled out as the last light was fading away with little pressure and a few easy miles remaining.
The last part of the ride was fun. I love riding in the dark. Somehow the aches and pains of a long ride seem to diminish once the sun sets. Again we were in a double pace line and traffic was light. We chatted and dreamt about greasy, salty meals as the final miles ticked by.
Queuing up for the last ferry back to Seattle
We pulled into the finish at the hotel in Bremerton a little before 11:00pm. We had plenty of time for some pizza and a beer before getting on the 11:40 ferry. I think several of us set personal best times for a 400k on that ride. More importantly, I did some good learning on how hard I can push myself before it all falls apart. And I also learned that I can push myself over the edge, and if I take some time, eat some food, get some fluids in me, I can even recover enough to finish the ride. Yep, another good day on the bike.