By Jeff Wyatt
- The Benefit of Training and Preparation
At age 60, I set a goal: go to Wichita Falls and break the five-hour mark in their 100-mile bike race, in August, in the heat, aptly named Hotter ‘N Hell Hundred.
After many years of jogging casually, my body would no longer tolerate running without injury. I made the switch to cycling (fancy word for “riding a bike”) about two years ago. I quickly entered the local Tour de Gap, in Buffalo Gap but chose the 11-mile ride, the shortest of the three offered, since I was new to cycling. With an undeserved high sense of accomplishment I beat the 8 year-olds on their stingrays and the moms with picnic baskets on the back of their bikes. Still, a victory is a victory. Unfortunately, there was not an awards ceremony to document this achievement.
Two years ago, I was encouraged by a friend to try the Wichita Falls 100-mile bike ride. He even trained a little with me and told me my goal should be to break 6-hours. Despite having an apparently claustrophobic and irritated wasp fly into my mouth on a training ride the week before, I still went to the famously hot race. In 2017 remnants of Hurricane Harvey were parked over Wichita Falls that weekend, so the conditions were unbelievably cool and calm. I finished in 5 hours 29 minutes. I was 671st place and number 79 in my age group.
I should have retired right then. Conditions would never be that good again. But last year I turned 60, and that meant I would be the youngest in my age group. Only once every five years does this happen. Adults who run, bike or otherwise athletically compete by age group cherish this special alignment of the planets. I thought this would be the perfect time to pull out all the stops and try and break 5 hours.
Turns out, in bike races, some people ride together in groups. Like geese flying, they save energy by drafting off each other. I was curious how many of the 670 people who had beaten me the previous year had used this technique. Since I couldn’t find that out, I decided to level the playing field by joining that throng. I signed up with a group whose sole purpose was for the group’s leaders to get our team across the finish line in under 5 hours.
The preparation for me again included the Tour de Gap. I signed up for the second longest distance, 27 miles, and finished a respectable 8th. I unexpectedly caught the person who I believed to be the leader with about a quarter of a mile left in the race. We careened through the streets to the finish line with me a few yards in front thinking I had won. Turns out the racers who placed one through seven were ahead of us and already packing their bikes up. Nevertheless, it was great preparation. No wasps or bees in the mouth this year, although I did severely bite my tongue a week before while sitting in a recliner chewing gum and watching TV. (Did I already mention how fine of an athlete I am?)
- The Excitement of the Start
Conditions for the race appeared challenging with a 102-degree temperature forecast and a bigger problem: a 14-mph south wind. There were about 200 riders in our 5-hour goal “Pacer” group. We had a meeting the night before, and it appeared the group was comprised of seasoned riders so they looked a bit concerned about all the questions I was asking.
We gathered in the dark the next morning at about 6:15 a.m. in front of where the entire group of about 7,500 riders would soon assemble. My wife was riding in her first Wichita Falls race, but she chose the 10k distance and was at the back of the 7,500 for her race. To understand the magnitude of this event, she crossed the start line 45 minutes after the cannon blast starting the race, which is how long it took for everyone to launch.
My group started at 6:45 a.m. I had some concerns as to whether I could ride as fast as the group. I had chosen not to ride for the last 10 days to try and let my body heal from a few nagging pains (aforementioned tongue injury, foot and rear). Quickly, I felt relieved that I could at least keep up without too much effort. I started near the front of the group but had trouble getting my foot clipped into one of the pedals (confirming the thoughts of my teammates the night before about my skill level) so I ended up about 2/3 back. Immediately we were moving fast at about a 22-mph average headed west toward Iowa Park. Twenty two mph is a good average because if you were to maintain it for 5 hours you would cover 110 miles. We had one leisurely 60-second bathroom break scheduled at the 63 mile mark (you read that correctly).
- Enjoyment of the Race and Strategy
I started working my way up the pack because I wanted to be toward the front. The group was an impressive sight with all the blinking tail lights and small headlights shining in the pre-dawn. I found a guy in white bike shorts (everyone else was wearing black or dark colors) going at a good speed so I settled behind him. It was fun talking with other riders and hearing where they were from. The furthest away was Cuba (the country); the closest was Burkburnett (3 miles away). Little Rock, Oklahoma City, and cities around Dallas were well-represented. We were traveling in four columns spread across the entire roadway, led by a pickup truck to warn the occasional oncoming vehicle.
At some point someone worked their way up beside me, then inserted himself between me and the guy in white shorts. No problem… until we reached some hills, and then in a blink of an eye, a big gap developed between a group at the front (of which the white shorts guy was a part) and the guy that had pulled in front of me. This was not something I wanted to happen so I took off after the lead group. Ttraveling between groups means you don’t have anyone upon whom to draft. I pedaled furiously and was making progress but it was still not a good feeling to be burning so much energy so early in the race. All of a sudden one of the Pacer leaders appeared at my side, said “get ready,” and put his hand on my shoulder and pushed (this felt a little like cheating) while we climbed the next hill. He then went in front of me and let me draft behind him, and he almost literally pulled me into the leading group. Once there, it was no trouble to catch my breath and stay with them.
All of this is happening within the first 20 miles of the race. We then turned north and the 14-mph wind started helping us. That was fun. We were going about 31-mph without a whole lot of effort. I worked my way nearly to the front, right behind the Pacers (who were doing the heavy lifting of fighting the wind resistance and letting the rest of us draft).
The next 17 miles heading north were uneventful. The huge orange sun was just coming up on the eastern horizon on our right. We were concentrating on getting our average mph as high as possible to help give us a buffer for when the inevitable turn into the wind occurred and the average speed would drop.
Perhaps due to the briskness of the 90-degree morning, there were two interesting cow encounters. The first cow must have had her back to us. She was grazing near the fence, and our group finally entered her peripheral vision when we were just yards away. She spooked and took off but was hemmed in by the fence and a creek behind her. In an athletic move very unexpected of a cow, she didn’t even slow when she reached the creek, and with a methane assisted launch, jumped its 10-foot width with about 40-feet to spare. I think the incredible leap surprised and scared her too because she put her tail straight up in the air and ran away even faster. I am not sure I knew a cow could put its tail straight up.
The second memorable animal was a Black Angus steer (maybe a bull, I didn’t ask). We crested a small rise, and he was right there near a fence near the road. His head shot up, ears pointed, chest puffed out and all of his muscles tensed with his hide shimmering in the morning light. Even from 30-yards away, his size made the little barbed-wire fence seem insufficient. He held that pose the whole time I watched him. It appeared he was shocked at the sight of bike riders. I couldn’t help but wonder if he would hold that impressive stance for the next six hours as a continuous line of bikers would be passing him.
- The Blood, Sweat and Tears
At about mile 37 we made the turn back to the east, and I found myself on the south side of the road with the south wind buffeting me hard. It was very difficult and something they had warned us about the evening before. They suggested weaker riders (all looked at me) get to the north side of the road to benefit from other riders blocking the south wind. I found my way over, which was not easy. There were perhaps 60 riders in this leading group with about 18 inches between the back tire of one bike and the following bike’s front tire. You kind of had to wait for gaps to appear to move over. We are basically a team, so you are not wanting to cause problems for anyone else.
This stretch started out pretty hard. I was immediately concerned and wondered if I could keep up the pace for as long as would be needed. Fortunately, after getting to the north side of the road, it got easier, and we were again averaging about 22-mph.
At this point I was in the front third of the breakaway group. Occasionally, we would have to scoot over for an oncoming car. We started going down a slight incline, and all of a sudden I heard shouts of “Slowing!” and other warnings and then BAM — bikers in front of me started toppling over. Using my quick reflexes, I crashed right into three of them. For the second time in two weeks, I was very thankful for my helmet. My head snapped back onto the ground and the helmet cushioned the impact. The helmet did such a good job, my head hitting the ground was a non-event. I got up and went over to the tangled mass to see if I could help. One guy’s foot was still attached to his pedal, and he couldn’t unclip, so I was able to give it a little twist to free it. One girl was on her back moaning, but no blood or bones showed, so it may have been she was just scared. Some of the Pacers were there quickly and asked if she wanted them to call for medical assistance. Since others seemed to be taking charge, I started looking for my bike. It wasn’t where I thought it should be (maybe the helmet hadn’t left me entirely unscathed) but I found it a few seconds later. My water bottles were still in their spots, so I lifted up the bike, took a minute or so to get the chain back on, and then took off to return to the race.
This pileup and aftermath probably did not take 4 minutes, but when I got back on my bike none of the 200 I was riding with was in sight. In flat North Texas, that is saying something. I knew my goal of breaking five hours was on the line and started what felt like a hopeless sprint to catch up. Part of me was trying for a Taylor Swift “Shake it Off” attitude but I kept hearing in my mind the Tom Hanks quote in Apollo 13, “We just lost the moon.”
After about 5 minutes I spotted a small group of riders on the horizon. I eventually caught them about 10 minutes later and at least one was from my group. I asked if he had been in the pileup and he said “No, was there a pileup?” He said he had had mechanical problems. I asked him if he thought we could still break 5 hours, and he just shook his head. This group was comprised of about 6 riders, but I found that even though I had been able to catch up to them, I could not maintain their speed. I attempted to draft, silently encouraged myself, silently berated myself and attempted every other trick I knew, but probably due more to my exhaustion than their actual speed, I fell behind.
Shortly after that, a Pacer came by, and I called out to him for help. He got in front of me and tried to pull me to catch up to the small group. After a few minutes, the effort was just too hard, so I told him to go on without me. He didn’t argue. (Where is the pushing on your back when you really need it?)
At this point I’m about 50 miles into the race, and another Pacer goes by and says “you are still on pace to make it,” and rides on. I was astounded. How could that be? I then realized that while technically what he said was true (50 miles down in 2.5 hours) it ignored the reality that I was now traveling by myself at an average of about 14-mph, with no group to draft on, and soon the course would turn south into the wind.
Ten miles later, I made the south turn and the wind hit me like I had tied a sheet of plywood to my back. Many other individual riders seemed to have become similarly non-aerodynamic. With great effort, we pedaled at about nine mph. It was then I calculated that if I did the full 100 miles I would take a total of five and a half or six hours (or more) to finish. Since my wife would be expecting me at the five-hour mark, I knew she would be worried. So, as a kindness to her, I decided when I got to Hell’s Gate I would take the route that cut the distance to 75 miles instead of 100. This Hell’s Gate location is designed so that those who do not make it to that point within 6 hours of the starting gun are re-directed to the 75-mile route instead of the 100-mile course.
The guys at this spot were not expecting someone to take the 75-mile route barely 3 hours into the race. I had to drive right through cones, barriers etc. to take the shortcut. If you are old enough to remember the movie “Stripes” with Bill Murray and how they crashed through the Czechoslovakian border in the armored R.V. to the surprise of the border guards, that is what it felt like.
- Meeting People Sharing the Same Hardship
The shortcut was desolate, void of other riders. I was comfortable with my decision to forego the 100-mile distance and made myself start enjoying the event as a ride rather than a race. About three miles after the “border breach,” the road merged with one of the other race courses. I met up with a string of riders who were riding the 100-kilometer distance (62 miles) and enjoyed talking with several of them. One was a 55-year-old (self-proclaimed “old and fat”) coach (she was exaggerating on both accounts). She was great at cheering on younger riders. It seemed to energize her as much as it made them feel good. We took turns at the front to battle the wind while traveling south and rode side by side when heading east. She eventually left me in her dust. Another rider was a 25-year-old female body builder. I made her flex her bicep to prove it. I don’t think she was lying. We drove through Sheppard Air Force base, and they had a couple of hundred airmen lined up along the course cheering us on. I rode close to them and had my hand out giving High Fives to these guys like I was some champion racer. Obviously they had heard of my 11-mile Tour de Gap victory the year before or possibly had been ordered to stand out there — so I wanted to at least let them know it was appreciated. Some of them High Fived a little too hard, so I edged a bit farther away so that it was more like a High Two or High Three.
- Crossing the Finish Line
The course into the Wichita Falls finish line was different on this 75-mile route than the 100-mile course the previous year. As a result, I was unprepared as I turned a corner to see the finish line only 150 yards away. It was lined with people and what appeared to be a carnival behind it. Music was blasting, and an announcer was calling out names as they crossed the finish line. I pedaled hard to make those watching think I had been doing so all along and crossed the line 4 hours and 13 minutes after starting. I didn’t expect my wife to be at the finish line yet, but she was. She came up to me with an astonished look like “how did you beat everyone in your group?” and all I said was “Well, there’s a story to it.”
- The Ride Home and Story Telling
She and I had a really good time. Her race had some comical (since they didn’t happen to her) events, and we enjoyed re-living the details on our drive back home to Abilene. I know the telling of stories is one reason why I like running or riding in races. Surprisingly, just having an event on the calendar to point toward is also nice. An upcoming race spurs me to ride much more than my natural laziness would. I almost always lose weight in preparation for a race, which is nice since most other techniques I try are not successful. It is also just fun to share an event with someone – wife, friend, sibling etc.
It isn’t how fast you go versus others so much as it is each person’s own experience. Whether you come in 1st, 671st, or 7,500th, it sets a marker that you can try and top the next time. If you are extra lucky, your birthday will fall so your age ends in a zero or five and you can be the youngest in your age group.
Would I ride it again? Well, I often think of my brother’s words regarding his thoughts on running. “I really like 5K races about 3 hours after they are over.” It has been six months since my 75-mile bike ride, so I think I now can say: “Yes, but I am riding near the very front of the group.”
The real question is – should you ride in it? Why not? Start riding 30 minutes a day, and increase it when you feel you can. Then just put the Tour de Gap or the Wichita Falls ride on your calendar. I promise you one thing; you’ll have a story to tell.