Thursday, October 30, 2014

LOTOJA--Part 6--The final Intallment (by Rob Critchfield)

In the last post, I had just ridden through Alpine and was just about to embark on the last segment of LOTOJA.  In my two prior LOTOJAs, I have not ridden this section very fast.  My first year, I was riding with a friend who struggled through this section.  Last year, I stopped too long at both feed stations in the canyon and had a flat through this section.  This year, I really wanted to feel good about my effort through this section.  

After riding through Alpine, I made the right hand turn from highway 89 on to highway 26.  I believe this is called Alpine Canyon.  Just as you make the right hand turn, the feed zone starts.  I rode to the very end of the feed zone to number 9.  I was confident that my food had made it to the feed station because when I was about 10 miles from Alpine, my family passed me as they drove by.  When I pulled up, my family quickly handed me my scratch mix bottles.  I also got some of the food I had prepared.  I was still eating the food I started the race with, which had been in my back pocket just under 8 hours.  It was nice to get some fresh food, although I didn’t end up eating any of it.  I also had frozen two snickers bars.  It turned out that the snickers bars were all that I ate the last 46 miles.  The following you tube video from 7:29 through 8:15 shows the approach to the Alpine feed zone.

As I have talked about in a prior post, those that agree to be your support group do so much to help you.  I am grateful for my family helping me.  There was another funny story that happened with my support.  I can laugh about it now, but it is another experience where I was rather rude as a rider.
As you may remember, I really wanted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at the Afton stop.  By the time I got to Alpine, I had forgotten all about it.  My sister felt bad that they didn’t have a sandwich prepared for me.  So, she went to the store and purchased bread, peanut butter and jelly.  Because of traffic and the difficulty of parking and getting to the feed stop, she got to the feed stop just as I was ready to pull away.  I remember seeing her standing there with a shopping bag and her asking me if I wanted a sandwich, but I told her something like I didn’t have time and then I rode off.   My brother was laughing at the whole experience.  He said her face was priceless as I heartlessly road away.

I didn’t realize at the time what had happened.  I didn’t know she had sacrificed time and effort to try and get me my sandwich.  I didn’t realize she had just gotten there the same time I did.  I just saw her there holding the bag and knew I couldn’t wait for her to make me a sandwich because I would miss riding with Jonathan and the others.  My sister was a good sport about it.

After picking up my food and water bottles, I looked for Jonathan.  He pulled up and invited me to ride with a group that had gotten to Alpine just after we did.  This was a group of 6 to 8 riders.  Most of them were from the Masters +45 and +35 group I had been riding with and chasing all through Star Valley.  Curtis, the rider that I help pull back to his race group was also in the group.  He had gotten dropped again from the lead group again due to leg cramps.  There was also the guy in the red jersey who I rode with on the Salt River Pass descent.  One of the guys was a cyclosupportive class rider like me, who left in the group just after me, which meant he had made up the 6 minutes on me at the start.

One of the rules of LOTOJA is that you are not supposed to ride with ear buds in your ears.  I typically ride with one ear bud when I ride by myself.  On some of those stretches through Star Valley when I was riding by myself, I put an ear bud in my ear.  I turned the music off when I would ride with another rider, but I never took the ear bud out of my ear.  I had forgotten all about it. 
When this group got a look at me, I could tell there were several of them that really didn’t want me riding with them.  My guess is they judged my size and thought there was no way this guy can ride with us—Strike 1 against me.  Then because my ear bud was still in my ear, one of the guys bluntly told me to take it out and told me he wouldn’t ride with anyone that had one in.  I don’t blame him, he was right—Strike 2.  I wondered if there would be a third strike.
We pulled out of the feed zone and started up the canyon.  The ride up the canyon is beautiful. It has always been a mental challenge for me.  My body always feels like Alpine should be the finish of the ride.  Because of the scenic nature of the canyon, it is easy to get lulled into enjoying the ride and not riding as hard as you need to.  In my prior two LOTOJAs I never had the opportunity to ride with a group like this.  In fact, with the exception of riding off the back of the Cat 3 group, this was the first group I was able to ride with all day.  I was hopeful it would help me ride the canyon so that I could finish under 10 hours. 

I would have loved to have ridden with Rex through this canyon.  We complement each other when we ride.  The canyon is suited for our strengths.  Maybe next year we will be able to stay together and ride the canyon as a team.  Rex taught me how to think about this last stretch.  Last year, he thought about as if he was just riding to South Prairie and back, because it is about the same distance as when we ride to South Prairie and back from our homes.  I adopted his way of thinking about this stretch and I think it helped.

The majority of this group had ridden together through Star Valley.  We had a headwind in the canyon and so the group preferred a continuous rotating pace line.  This seems to be popular among the racers at LOTOJA.  I am not convinced it is better than the normal linear pace line I am used to. 
The way the continuous pace line worked is that the pace line would start up the left side.  Once a rider on the left side got to the front, he moves over to the right and starts soft peddling.  The riders in the right line that are soft peddling drift back until they are the last rider.  Once a rider is the last rider on the right side, he moves over to the left line and follows the guy ahead of him.  So the pace line really turns into two side by side pace lines with the one on the left going harder than the one on the right.  Because you have riders moving over to the right on the front and then to the left on the back, the pace line is more like a circular pace line than a linear one.  

I suspect this makes everyone go faster with a lot less effort.  There are no long pulls on the front.  You are on the front only for a few seconds as you move past the rider on the right and clear enough room to move over.  I struggled with this type of pace line because there is a lot of finesse involved.  I need someone to explain to me the different pace lines and what are the strengths and weaknesses of riding the various ones.  I always feel like this continuous pace line neutralizes my power.  I am used to getting on the front and really pulling.  That, however, is not the object of this pace line and when I do that, I blow it up.  

The guys I was riding with were very patient with me.  Despite getting off to a seemingly bad start with them, they were all very helpful in coaching me how to ride the continuous pace line.  They were constantly telling me to take it easy.  I kept wanting to go hard.  It was difficult for me to hold back.  If I used my power for this type of pace line I could leave the guy following me in the lurch.  So, they would coach me on backing off the power.  The second area where I struggled was when I got in the right line I needed to soft peddle.  Again, I am used to peddling harder than what I needed to in this pace line.  After several miles, I started to get the hang of it.

The road is about 100 feet above the Snake River.  You can see the river down below you as you ride up the canyon.  There are quite a few rapids through the canyon and there are plenty of groups floating the river.  The you tube video I keep referencing shows this really well from 8:22 until about 9:00 minute mark.  You can see the Snake River far below the road

Coming out of Alpine, the road has a bunch of large rollers with the net effect of you climbing higher towards Jackson.  I enjoyed riding in the pace line.  I could tell that I was conserving a lot of energy, but I also felt like I wasn’t going as hard as I could on my own.  Understandably, I hadn’t ridden as hard as most of these guys for the first part (unless they really benefited from riding in groups).  Most of them had ridden the race 30 minutes or so faster than I had at this point.  I think it was the right choice to ride in the pace line but I will wonder if I could have gone harder on my own.  I just don’t know if I could have sustained it.  

After about 10 miles, I must have impressed some of the riders with what I was doing because the rider who told me to take my ear bud out asked me “Where do you get your power from?”  I responded, “I train on Mount Rainer.”  He then replied “It shows.”

The disadvantage of riding this type of pace line is I am used to getting on the back and eating and drinking while I am on the back.  It was difficult to do that because you are constantly moving in the continuous pace line.  I am not smart enough to figure this stuff out on the fly.  I think what I really needed to do is eat and drink as soon as I got in the right hand line as I drifted back and not wait until I was on the back.  I didn’t realize this and made the mistake one time of eating once I drifted to the very back.  One of the problems with eating real food instead of getting my calories from gels or from a drink mix is that it is more difficult to get the food out of your pocket and eat it.  

As I drifted to the back, I tried to get a snickers bar out of my pocket.  It just so happened my timing was bad.  I did this just as we came to a hill.  The group hit the hill but I only had one hand on the handlebars and was caught off guard.  They dropped me because I wasn’t ready.  I quickly recovered and got to the top of the hill as fast as I could.  A gap had developed, but I used the power I had been conserving and soon caught back up with the group. 

We rode this way through the canyon.  When we would travel downhill, the pace line would straighten out and then we would begin the continuous rotation again.  The following is a picture of me on the front as we are headed down one of the hills in the canyon.  You can see that I don’t really fit into this group.  I am much larger than the rest of them :)

As we approached Jackson, there were many sections where we were unable to maintain the pace line because the shoulder was too narrow.  About 12 miles from the finish, there was a little bit of climb.  I thought this might be a challenge for me to stay with this group because all of them can climb well.  The past two LOTOJAs I have struggled on this incline.  I had plenty of power to stay with the group and the hill was not a problem for me this year.

As we approached Jackson, I had to deal with my last challenge of the ride.  On longer rides when I approach about the 150 mile mark, I start to develop hot spots on the bottom of my feet where I have been pushing on the pedals.  As I understand it, this is probably something called metatarsalgia.  I believe what happens is the metatarsal bones of the feet have been pushed together so much during the ride that it causes nerve pain.  The feeling for me is an incredible painful sensation in the balls of my feet.  It really hinders my ability to apply any power.

I had two strategies to try and combat the pain.  My first was to take some ibuprofen.  My second was that I purchased some shoe inserts from specialize that have something called a metatarsal cushion.  The concept is that this cushion pushes against the bones in the feet to keep them separated so that they don’t pinch the nerves.  I was a little nervous about the inserts because I had not used them on a prior ride.

It ended up that I think the inserts really helped me and kept the pain away for longer.  But, the pain still eventually came.  I started to get some twinges as I approached Alpine, so I took some ibuprofen and that seemed to help.  I was alright until about 10 miles from the finish when the pain came on strong and I couldn’t stop it.  I tried taking some more ibuprofen, but it didn’t seem to help.  As a result, it became incredibly painful to pedal.  I would end up pedaling to get my speed up and then coast to let the pain subside.

At about seven miles from the finish, you turn off one road onto a bike path.  The bike path takes you to another road.  As you approach the other road, you pass through a tunnel.  The transitions are tricky and you need to be in the right gears.  Just after the tunnel, you turn into an uphill climb.  You can see this transition at 9:22-9:45 on the following video

I was on the back of the group when it went through the tunnel.  It was just too painful for me to pedal as hard as I needed to stay with the group.  I was dropped on this hill, which was 7 miles from the finish.  For the next 7 miles I rode by myself, which was fitting for the sort of LOTOJA I was having.  I could see the group up ahead, but it was just too painful for me to put the kind of pressure on the pedals that I needed to in order to catch the group.  I felt like I had plenty left in the tank and if it wasn’t for the pain I think I could have caught the group.

I just continued to pedal hard for a few strokes and get my speed up to 27 to 30 mph and then I would coast for 30 seconds or more until it dropped down to 25 mph or so.  This would give my feet some relief from the pain I was feeling.  I really started watching my total time.  I realized at this point, I still had a solid chance of finishing under 10 hours, which was strong motivation to ride through the pain.  

The finish line at LOTOJA is really neat.  The last several miles you see the Grand Tetons in the background.  The approach to the finish is also flat.  This allows you to see the finish line a couple of miles away in the distance.  They race organizers have signs that count down the last 5km of the race.  You can see the last KM in the you tube video starting at about minute 10

The last 7 miles I rode all by myself.  I was able to maintain a strong pace albeit not as strong as the group I was dropped from.  No one passed me during this stretch.  I was grateful when I saw the sign that told me I only had 5 KM to go.  I looked at my time and saw how fast it was taking me to ride a KM.  When I hit the sign for 4 KM to go, I realize I was likely to finish in under 10 hours.  At that moment, I felt great despite the feeling of pain in my feet.  The last 4 KM I reflected on the past year of training.  I thought about all of the early morning rides I had done.  The great rides I had done with the Cyclopaths this past year, and of the many other fun training rides I was able to do.  When you accomplish a goal that you have worked hard for it is always rewarding.  LOTOJA is a great race but you really have to prepare for it, which takes a lot of time.  I started to pick up the pace and finished at a strong pace.  

I ended up riding in 9 hours and 54 minutes.  I finished 2 minutes behind the group that dropped me.  As a comparison, Jonathon and Curtis, both of the riders I road with between Afton and Alpine, respectively took 11th and 12th in their Masters +35 race.  They finished in 9 hours and 13 minutes.   There were over 60 riders in their group.  Several of the other riders that I rode pace line with took 5th through 8th in the Masters 45+ race.  They finished in 9 hours and 31 minutes.  

I had the 12th fastest time through the canyon for the non-relay Cyclosportive group.  As it turned out, I rode from the top of Salt River Pass to the finish (which is about 97 miles) in 3 hours and 58 minutes.  If you add on three more miles, which would be most of the king of the mountain climb, I rode the last 100 miles in approximately 4 hours and 15 minutes.

Because the racers ride 3 miles less than I did, it is not really fair to compare my time with them.  If I normalize my time, which basically means I replace my Logan to Preston time with their Logan to Preston time, I would have finished in about 9 hours and 41 minutes.  All of this means that I think I could become competitive enough to ride with one of the race groups next year. 

After finishing, I spent time with my family and waited for Rex to finish.  During this time, I talked with some of the guys that I rode the pace line with through the canyon.  They rider who bluntly told me to take my ear phone out of my ear asked me if I drank because he wanted to buy me a beer.  I told him I didn’t drink, but thanked him for the offer.  Apparently, I did something right riding in the pace line and it does not look like I ever earned that third strike.  I think whatever I did I earned some of their respect.  

 I believe Rex would tell you his 2014 LOTOJA was disappointing for him.  After recovering from his problems early in the race, Rex didn’t have stomach issues but he battled cramps most of the day.  Whenever he went to put some real power down, he would cramp.  As a result, he could not go as hard as he felt he should have been able to go.  Rex told me he rode well through the canyon and toward Jackson.  He was on the front of the group doing most of the pulling.  But, it just wasn’t his day again.  In the last couple of KM, Rex broke a spoke.  He was riding his low spoke count wheels and he was afraid he might taco his wheel.  He had to ride rather gingerly to the finish. 

The finish gathering place is right next to a creek that is mountain fed, which means it is cold.  Many cyclists just sit in this creek after LOTOJA.  I have a picture of Rex cooling off after his finish.   

I really enjoy LOTOJA.  It is one of those epic rides that you will never forget.  What I enjoy about it is that it makes you use all of your skills as a rider.  You have to be able to climb, ride in the flats, and ride rollers.  

On the whole, I was satisfied with my ride.  There are several areas I need to improve on.  I was a little disappointed with the last 10 miles of the ride.  The pain in my feet kept me from riding as hard as I thought I could.  I felt like I still had some fuel in the tank when I finished.  If I ride LOTOJA again, my goal will be to try and ride it under 9 hours and 30 minutes.  

What this ride did for me was give me the confidence that I think I could race this in the future.  I think I have had about as much fun riding with the Cyclosportive group as I can.  I will only ride again with the Cyclosportive group if I am riding with friends and do not care about how fast I finish the race.

You register for LOTJA sometime in March or April.  The registration fee is nonrefundable and nontransferable.  If you get in, because it’s a lottery, you are committed once you register.  If I register next year, I will likely race it in one of the race groups.  I wish we had more rides like LOTOJA closer to Washington.  RAMROD, although not a race, is the closest thing I think we have to LOTOJA in the northwest.

I would highly recommend putting LOTOJA on your bucket list.


  1. Thanks for the write-up. Great job!

  2. Great race report Rob. Nice work on the bike AND on this blog. Thanks for taking the time to invite the rest of us into your race experience.