National 24 Hour Challenge – Paul Linck
National 24 Hour Challenge: 24 hour road race
Date of Race: 6/18/2016 8am – 6/19/2016 8am
Total Miles Ridden: 447.1
Overall Rank: 3
Age Group: Male 50-54
Age Group Rank: 1
Sibling / Sibling Rank: 1
This was my second time racing the National 24 Hour Challenge in Middleville, MI. The last time I did it solo, but this time my twin brother and I did it together. Jim wanted to do it with me last time and compete in the sibling/sibling category, but he had a conflict. This time, he agreed to do it, but had not trained for it. But, he did it with me anyway because he is an awesome, crazy twin. We entered the sibling / sibling race as well as our individual race. Note: You sign up for the special category – in our case sibling / sibling – and they add each of our mileage together to get the total mileage for that category. So, you always have your individual race in addition to the special race category.
The race has been going on for 34 years and is held only about 45 minutes from where I grew up. It has an extremely friendly, almost cult-like environment not like most of the other races I do on the Ironman circuit.
It is a significant challenge that requires serious commitment, training volume and a bit of insanity. It is a road race that starts at 8am Saturday morning and finishes at 8am Sunday morning. Yes, you ride your bike for 24 hours straight and whoever gets the most miles by 8am wins.
Once again this year, my cousin Tommy and my friend Dave’s family was our crew. Dave was riding again this year with his daughter Lindsey (competing in the father daughter event). Dave has ridden the race 13 times and it was the second for his daughter – they hold the father daughter record for the race. Also, our friend Glenn was doing the race with us and it was his 25th time. With Tommy and Dave’s family crewing for us we were covered with many years of crew experience. Although its technically possible to do this race without a crew, it would be much more difficult and would adversely affect the number of miles you could ride.
The last time I did this race, I rode just over 400 miles (402.3) but it took a huge toll on my undercarriage that kept me off the bike for 3 full months after the race. I also had some bad cramping during the hot hours of the day that cost me a couple hours of riding. My goal this time was to get more than 402.3, with the main goal to keep my underside happy. I vowed to stop if I started having any real issues down there.
We went to the race site the day before to get our race packets and setup our pit. It was a nice sunny day and I wanted to get as much done the day before as possible.
We stayed at my cousin Tommy’s in Grand Rapids and were only 10 miles from race site so that saved us some time in the morning. We got up at 5:30 and we had eggs, bagels, chocolate milk, OJ, coffee etc. We arrived at the race site a bit before 7am and unloaded and setup everything. We had 3 coolers with drinks filled with fairlife chocolate milk, water, powerade, and monster. We also had lots of sandwiches, uncrustables, assorted bars, bananas, watermelon, candy bars, pickle juice and various other items. What I eat during an event this long is less important than making sure I eat enough to stay fueled. Trying to use gels, gu’s and other *race* type nutrition does not work for me in this type of race – I get sick of it easy and want to eat real food. Cravings change throughout the day and night.
The race starts promptly at 8am with over 300 riders attempting this year from 8 different countries including as far as Japan. First, there is a bag pipe parade and then the race starts. Sorry I don’t have any pictures of that but its a tradition for this race.
As I mentioned, this is a 24 hour road race. You can ride your road bike or TT bike and can even switch between them during the race if you want. That is the upright division. There is also a recumbent division, but they are a separate category and don’t race against real bikes. I road my road bike the entire race, but brought my TT bike just in case. The two young ones that beat me in overall mileage road their road bikes and TT bikes for different parts and its fairly common. I was not a big fan of the recumbent bikes being mixed in with everyone else since they were less stable and sketchy at times. There were not very many of them but a few were around the main pack on the first loop and it made me quite nervous at times.
The race is 3 loops. You start on loop 1 at 8am. It is 121.9 miles and you must complete that loop to move on to the next loop. After completing loop 1, you move to loop 2 which is 24 miles. You ride that loop as many times as you can until loop 3 opens. You can keep riding loop 2 after loop 3 opens if you want but you must be completely done with loop 2 before 9pm or you don’t get credit for that loop. Loop 1 plus loop 2 are considered the daytime loops and loop 3 is considered the nighttime loop. Loop 3 opens at 7:15pm and is 7.6 miles. Once you get on loop 3, you stay on that loop until the end of the race. All the loops are rolling terrain – not super hilly, but certainly not flat. Most of the roads are in pretty good shape but there were a few large sections that had been recently chip-sealed and those were very rough.
This race is scored rather old school. You have a great big cardboard bib on your back and each time you reach a checkpoint, they punch your card. The first loop had 4 checkpoints, loop 2 had 2 checkpoints and loop 3 just had one – at the pits. When you are done riding the day loops, they tear off that portion of the bib and start punching holes for loop 3. After the race is complete, they just total up all the laps that have been punched. They also give you a rider log that your pit crew uses to keep track of your loops in case of an error. I kept track myself — every time I got to the next loop I verified that we were in sync. Its an interesting system in this day and age with chips and all that stuff, but it works. The one downside is that you have to stop a LOT more than you would like – you must stop and wait for them to punch the bib and tear off portions before continuing. Our pit/tent was positioned just past the checkpoint/finish line so after they punched our bib, we didn’t have far to go for our support crew.
We started loop one as a big group. Our strategy was to stay with the front group as long as possible and once things broke up a bunch we would try to stay in smaller groups. Jim and I had planned to ride with Glen, Dave, Lindsey for most of the race, but things broke up a early so we ended up getting split up – Dave dropped back to help a woman who’s tire was gonna flat. He stayed with her to make sure she was safe and helped her ride back to the group.
Jim and I stayed in the lead group and we were holding 22-23mph. We reached the first checkpoint around mile 34. This one is important since folks use it to try and make a break — while we are refilling our nutrition and getting bib punched, there is lag between folks since so many riders arrive at once. I got out pretty quick and Jim was 5-10 seconds behind me due to the punching queues. I waited for him and then we busted our butts for the next 3-5 minutes trying to catch the group. Its hard to imagine that 1.5 hours into a 24 hour ride that you should do this, but it does make sense. Its very important to stay with a larger group as long as possible to save energy.
A little while after the first checkpoint, a few young fast guys took off ahead of the main group. Jim and I were near the front and then a dude tried to organize a pace line with 15 second rotations to try and catch them. I told him no way since that was not a good strategy for a race this long. I had Jim to come with me and we dropped back. Needless to say, that pace line never materialized so we kept riding with as many people that could hang on to the group.
By the time we got to the next checkpoint, Jim and are were riding near the front again. Its nice being at the front for the checkpoints since you have no waiting to get punched and can easily find your crew. You have a little time to make any necessary adjustments. Not long after that second checkpoint, Jim and I spent a good bit of the time at the front setting the pace and by the time we completed that first loop there were only about a dozen or so folks in that pack. We were both riding quite well and I was feeling good. We road that first 121.9 miles in just under 5.5 hours.
I was feeling a tweak / cramp coming on in my left calf but I was ready for it this time. At the checkpoint, I stopped in our tent and drank 1/2 jar of pickle juice. It was totally gross, but I have tried everything on the planet to prevent cramping and nothing worked for me so I gave it a try. After about 15-20 minutes I felt no more twitches and had no issues with cramps the entire race (I drank more pickle juice a few hours later). The theory behind pickle juice is not related to electrolytes / sodium – the theory is that cramping is an issue caused by neurons – not muscles – and for some reason pickle juice can stabilize those crazy neuron firing patterns. I am not a scientist so you can google it. All I can say is, this has to be the first time I was able to successful ward off cramps on a very hot day while riding hard. The main part of the day was 90 degrees and quite humid so it was a situation that would normally doom me into crampville, USA.
Jim and I started loop 2 together with a couple other riders. Each lap, we would pick up some new riders and drop some others. Some folks stopped to rest after each loop and others would start again after resting. Jim and I stayed together for 3 laps of loop 2. After the 3rd lap, Jim was toast and decided to take a lap off so I went off on my own. I ended up riding most of those last 2 daytime laps solo, but I did hook up with a few folks from time to time. Jim started riding again before I completed the 4th lap with Dave, Lindsey and Glenn and they were ~10-15 minutes up the road. I was planning on only doing 4 laps of loop 2 but I finished the 4th one before loop 3 was open so I ended up doing 5. I went very hard on that last one because I was told Jims group wasn’t very far ahead of me. I caught with them right after I completed my final daytime loop. At that point it was 7:45pm and I had done 241 miles – just over 20 MPH. Was feeling good and looking forward to the sun going down to cool things off a bit.
The night time loop is a simple rectangle of flat and rolling with one *climb*. The first road was flat-ish, the second was rolling, the 3rd was up, down and then up. The final road starts with a false flat, continued to a low gradient climb then had a fairly steep climb up to the intersection and then flattened out for the finish into the school. That was the hardest part of the loop. I call this steep climb the “magic moving climb” because it started as a about a 2/10 of a mile climb and quite easy. But, it got longer and steeper each lap. By 5-6am, it was like climbing Woody’s (for those of you not from Georgia, thats a 5.5 mile climb at 5% average grade) – I found myself mentally preparing for that climb the entire loop.
The four of us – Dave, Lindsey, Jim and I started the nighttime loop together but Jim and I quickly rode away. We were riding quite well. At each checkpoint/lap, we stopped and refreshed our nutrition, checked chamois and made any adjustments. Jim was starting to fatigue hard as he had not trained much for this race. He was planning to stop after 10 laps. I hit 300 miles at ~11pm (15 hours) but Jim still had a few laps to go to hit 300 so he decided to keep riding until he got to 300 miles. We had a nice rhythm going — he pulled the first half of each loop and I pulled the second half. After Jim hit 307 miles, he stopped as he was completely out of gas. That was about 1am Sunday morning.
I kept riding through the night loop solo. During the night lots of people stop and take breaks and then start again. It is fun to ride at night but the legs and rear were starting to fatigue. Things happen to your body after 18 hours on the bike that just don’t happen in long 5-10 hour rides. Its very different and there is not a great way to prepare for it. As you ride you just see lots of solid and blinking red lights ahead of you. At times, my mind would lose track of what I was doing and see things that were not there – not hardcore hallucinations but similar. With all the differing light patterns it was easy for the mind to make shit up. I even made out many of the constellations at one point with the red dots everywhere.
At each of the 4-5 intersections on the course, there was a police car with a big light. After about 3am, the police left a few of the turns and only remained at the dangerous intersections. It was still pretty easy to see those turns since by that point I knew pretty much every inch of that road.
I broke the 400 mile barrier at 5am. At that point, I allowed myself to think about the end. I feel it is very important to never think about the end before that – just think about how far you have gone and just assume you will be riding your bike forever just like Forrest Gump. I was extremely fatigued but just kept pedaling – slow, but steady only holding about 17-18 mph. Everything after 400 was gravy to me so I just went with the mentality of one lap at a time. I decided what to do at the end of each lap. Since I only had 3 hours to go, I did not stop other than to get my bib punched. I rolled through and just kept riding. At about 5:30-6:00am Jim got back on his bike and rode with me. It was really nice to have him with me and he was fresh again so he did all the pulling. Each time I completed a lap, I just said “OK, I will do one more lap”. It was nice to know it was always the last lap. But when I was done with each lap it seemed silly to stop since I could certainly do one more lap. By that point laps were 24-26 minutes depending on how long the stop took. The riding itself was slow (~17-18) but steady. Finally, it had to end. I completed my last lap at just past 7:35am. It was too risky to attempt another lap. If I completed it in 24 minutes I would get credit, but if it took 25, I would do the lap and not get mileage credit for it. I was struggling a lot for the last few laps and just wasn’t sure if I could make it so we decided to stop and put a fork in it.
We completed our final lap at 7:35am. I rode 447.1 miles and placed 3rd Overall and 1st in my division (M50-54). Jim and I won the sibling / sibling division. Since I rode over 400 miles, I got a massive 400 mile award – if you look close enough using a microscope, you can see it on my shirt. It is that pin just next to the logo on the shirt. Yeh, I know, it looks like a stain, but it is actually the 400 mile award/pin.
For the Strava users out there, my Strava ride is here: https://www.strava.com/activities/614595128
FYI – Nutrition
Its super hard to remember – I ate and drank and ate and drank,. Its a whole different deal than Ironman. It was not structured nutrition – I just ate whatever I was craving at the time. I drank quite a bit more during the heat of the day (temp got to 90 degrees and sunny). Below is my best recollection of everything I ate and drank during the race:
- 8+ uncrustables
- 4 sandwiches
- 8 bars of various sorts – cliff, granola, sunbelt etc
- 6 cups of fair life chocolate milk
- 3 snickers bars
- Many cups of watermelon
- 25 bottles water
- 10-15 bottles power ade
- 8 monster energy drinks
This is a true ultra endurance race. It tested me to my mental and physical limits. It is a entirely different challenge than Ironman. It is well over twice as long and I spent half the time racing with extreme fatigue. The race itself has a one of a kind atmosphere that is hard to compare. It has a very local, close, almost family feel. Its amazing to hear and see people cheering us on through all hours of the night. Ultimate thanks to my cousin, Tommy, being our crew chief and for Dave and his whole family for helping us through the entire 24 hour ordeal. Its amazing what they did for us all through the day and night.
I am not sure if I will do it again. Probably will.
As as I finish writing this I am thinking of all the other things I should have mentioned for someone who may want to try this for this first time like how I managed to keep Garmin going for 24 hours, how I dealt with keeping lights working bright enough for 8 hours. What I did to keep my underside happen and how much damage was actually done. Maybe at some point, I will add some more of these items, but for now, I am putting this one to bed.