By David Cohen
After 423 miles and over 22,000 feet of climbing, I was struggling. I was doing my best to stay on the back of the blistering 14 mph paceline headed by my two partners in pain. They seemed to me to be motoring along at an ungodly speed; I couldn't even take a 10-second pull at the front of the paceline. I had been riding for the past 20 hours with a saddle sore that was growing by the minute. What started out as moderate pain in the morning turned into excruciating agony by the middle of the night, and I knew it was only going to get worse over the next 300 miles. Passing through the Lake Champlain islands in the pitch-black Vermont night, I was seriously about to call it quits. The only thing keeping me going was the yellow, red, and black BMB jersey on the rider in front of me. I knew that sitting in my car right then was one of those jerseys and that if I dropped out, I'd never be able to wear mine. I couldn't have that, so I kept riding. What seems crazy in the rational mindset of day-to-day life, is completely sane on BMB.
Little did I know when I got to Newton, Massachusetts Wednesday afternoon, the eve of BMB, that I was to learn that lesson again and again over the next four days. Gearing up for a 750-mile ride to be completed within 90 hours over mountainous Vermont terrain, I joined the group of about 100 riders eating a generous pasta dinner and swapping war stories of other ultra events. I quickly found many riders I had ridden with before, including two I had ridden with on my sub 33 hour 600k - Phoebe Johnson of Beverly, Massachusetts and Ozzie Ayscue of San Francisco. My other brevets had been rather slow, so I figured it would work nicely to ride with those two again. They agreed, and we set off to get a good night's sleep.
For once, I actually did sleep the night before an ultra event. Waking up at 5, I was ready to roll at 5:45, 15 minutes before the 6am start time. Phoebe came down to the start and about 30 others were there as well. Ozzie, though, was nowhere to be found. First rule of planning a group start - make sure everyone knows when they're starting. Ozzie hadn't gotten word Phoebe and I were starting at 6 and instead joined the 4am start. By the time we rolled out of Newton, Ozzie was probably halfway to the first checkpoint. Alas, we hoped to catch him on the road.
Thursday morning was beautiful and the day promised to be a great riding day - sunny and not too hot. For August in New England, we were lucky. After a short pep talk from the French director of ACP (in French, with no translation, go figure), we were warned by Dave Jordan, the excellent Boston Brevet organizer, that he was going to lead us out of the Newton area in his van but that, unlike the earlier group, going 25 mph at the start was pointless because, according to Dave, "no one has finished this ride in the first day - ever." So, everyone took heed and followed Dave out at a much calmer 24 mph. Phoebe and I were not interested in starting our journey at race pace, so we quickly dropped off and got into a comfortable cruising speed with a few other like minded souls.
The first section was a 75-mile jaunt to Bullard Farm, a bed and breakfast in Salem, Massachusetts. It wound up having 4400 feet of climbing, but none of it was really too bad. Phoebe and I dropped off a quickly climbing pack about halfway through at which point we were officially the last BMB people on the road. Who cared? It was a beautiful day, the route was fun, and we were riding.
After a short refreshment stop in Barre, we rolled into Bullard Farm around 10:30am. There, we were treated to the first of consistently awesome service from the volunteers. Pierce, one of two mechanics supporting the ride, helped me with my derailleur and everyone else was generous with filling water bottles, getting us food, etc. I could write about this for every stop, but it would be redundant: suffice it to say that everyone, at every stop, was great.
The first of a couple of smaller climbs were in store for us after Bullard Farm, the longest being Mt. Pisgah. I had lots of trouble with it on the 600k, as we climbed it at the height of the hot afternoon. But, this time it was easy. I was feeling good, and Phoebe and I were in great spirits as we went through the secret checkpoint at the top. The Brattleboro checkpoint, the first in Vermont after a quick few miles in New Hampshire, was not far off. We got there, ate some well-deserved Chinese food, and were off. 113 miles down, 630+ to go.
Now came the real climbs. Between Brattleboro and Ludlow (the next checkpoint) came Andover pass and Mt. Terrible. The climb to Andover started slowly but got tougher with a switchback at the top. The climb to Terrible was worse, but perfectly manageable. We were climbing in beautiful weather in the gorgeous Green Mountains of Vermont. Any pain from the climbing was muffled by our surroundings. When we got into the Ludlow checkpoint around 6pm, we had passed a few of the 4am riders. Another meal, some great maple donuts from Mrs. Mitchell's in Manchester, VT (thanks Diane Goodwin), and we were off to Brattleboro.
The climb up Killington pass was our first climb in the night, but Phoebe and I were both feeling good still. The crisp night was perfect for riding, and we cruised along the Rte. 100 valley toward the base of Middlebury Gap seemingly effortlessly. Until then, we had been climbing in almost perfect unison, and the steep pass was no different. This is probably the hardest climb of BMB, coming after 220 miles on your first day, and having about a 12% final two miles. I decided to take the zigzag approach to climbing and made it to the top after maximum effort. A roaring descent and a very sleepy three-mile coast brought us to the Middlebury hockey rink, where we checked in around midnight and went to sleep.
Finally, we had found Ozzie. He was sleeping, and we got word he'd be up at 3am, so we asked for a 3am wakeup so we could join him. Sleeping under the bright lights of the hockey rink was tough, but I managed a couple of hours, maybe. Upon awaking, I discovered what was going to make my life hell for the next three days - a saddle sore just where my right leg met my butt. I'd never had a saddle sore problem before (and have often ridden many more miles than Newton to Middlebury), so I had no idea why I got it. I'd been wearing comfortable shorts with lots of Chamois Butt'r; I guess these things just happen sometimes. However it happened, it hurt, and it was only going to get worse.
Compounding the problem, it was pouring rain. But, on BMB, you just have to keep riding, because that's what you do. Five, including Ozzie who was happy to find us waking up just for him, rolled out at 4am in a steady downpour. Phoebe's flat tire five miles into the morning topped off the great start to the day.
This is where mental toughness became more important than physical strength or endurance. The sore was hurting, the rain was cold, and I had 500 miles in front of me. I struggled to stay on the pack and found the others completely out of view as we got to Essex Junction, just outside Burlington. I resigned myself to riding alone and struggling through the sore at my own pace, but suddenly I saw Ozzie and Phoebe waiting for me at the Friendly's. They'd let the others go ahead and decided to wait for me to ride together. Hallelujah.
We scarfed down a huge breakfast, and by the time we got back on the road the rain had stopped. With lots of food in our stomachs and the wind at our backs, we got to Lake Champlain and kept a steady 22+ mph pace through the Beautiful islands of Lake Champlain. We stopped at a great pastry shop in North Hero and got lucky that a brief downpour picked that moment --- when we were inside --- to open up. We stayed dry and got to Rouses Point, New York, the farthest north town in the state, before noon Friday. We were fifty miles short of the halfway point and feeling good.
According to the elevation profile on the BMB website, the trip from Rouses Point to Montreal (really Huntington), was flat as a pancake. We were looking forward to that easy stretch while eating a hearty lunch, when we overheard some of the people who had already made it back from Huntington - the route was different this year and there was a big climb midway through. Dashed hopes all around.
Worse yet, after we crossed the border and started toward Huntingdon, we hit what was to become our fiercest enemy for the next 50 miles --- a screaming headwind. The three of us kept our spirits up by trading thoughts on how unpleasant it was; it's amazing what sharing misery can do for your spirits! The climb was tough and the wind did not let up. The only thing keeping us going was knowing that coming back would be easier. At Huntington, the halfway point, we saw our average speed for that section was 12.9 -- absolutely miserable. But, what can you do?
Between Rouses Point and Huntington there were no signs of civilization, so when we got to the Canadian Legion hall there we delighted over the grilled cheese sandwiches (we swore they were the best we'd ever had) and homemade muffins. My sore, which had seemingly gone into remission after the Friendly's feast, was rearing its ugly head again and I was not happy. Vitamin I (Advil) and heaping applications of Chamois Butt'r were helping a bit, but there was no doubt that the sore was going to nag and get worse for the rest of the ride.
We were at the halfway point, 375 miles from the start covering over 20,000 feet of climbing. Mentally we were feeling good. Physically, well, that's another matter. As we got back on the road to Rouses Point looking forward to a great tailwind, the stark reality of pain set in. Phoebe was doing great, but my saddle sore was beginning to really restrict my pedaling and Ozzie's knee was beginning to give him trouble. When Dave Jordan's support van passed us, I sought his help for the saddle sore; he didn't have anything, but he generously called ahead to see if they could purchase anything for me to have ready at the next rest stop. Again, the volunteers were excellent.
The tailwind we had hoped for never materialized and we made it to Rouses Point very slowly. At times it seemed that I was holding everyone back, but I couldn't go harder - I was in terrible pain any time I put my weight on my saddle. Somehow I managed to get to Rouses Point where I dreamed a saddle sore cure was waiting. Thanks to the generosity of the volunteers, a pharmaceutical closet worth of ointments and bandages was waiting, but none of it helped. I had to persevere or quit. I kept riding, because that's what BMB is about.
We had rolled into Rouses Point at 9pm Friday night and, after a generous dinner and some gathering of night supplies, we got back on the road around 10:30. Our long breaks hurt our times, but Ozzie and I needed them (Phoebe was ready to roll after about 15 minutes it always seemed, but she patiently waited for us).
That morning, our goal was to get back to Middlebury before sleeping, maybe even Ludlow. However, one of the central lessons of BMB is that you have to be flexible with your goals. If you aren't, you're going to be disappointed and frustrated. As we left Rouses Point, our new goal was to get to the Burlington area (about 45 miles South) and then sleep at some motel. We knew the stretch through the Champlain islands would be windy but hoped that at night it wouldn't be as bad.
We were right, but I still struggled. Bad. Simply put, my ass hurt and I was tired. I couldn't hold a 14 mph paceline. Phoebe and Ozzie, bless their hearts and legs, understood and stayed with me, letting me tag along on the back as long as I needed. We were battling a slight drizzle, a bit of wind, and a lot of exhaustion. The lows of BMB are incredibly low. There's no way to anticipate that aspect of the ride going in; no way to prepare for them. But somehow, there is something inside that you have hopefully developed through the year of training for it that won't let the lows stop you - something that says that you have to go on. For me, that little voice manifested itself in Phoebe's jersey. I was ready to quit, my ass was begging me to quit, but her jersey wouldn't let me. Thank goodness for that BMB jersey.
And thank goodness for Vivarin. The other vitamin for ultra riders, Vitamin C (caffeine), did wonders for me. I should have thought about it earlier, but I didn't take advantage of it until halfway through the leg when we were stopped to look at the brilliant Vermont stars while standing on a bridge between two Champlain islands. Immediately, I was feeling better. Suddenly, the pain in my butt, while still there, wasn't so bad, and I was pulling the paceline again and ready to go.
After several false ends (I kept telling Phoebe and Ozzie that we only had a few more miles and was wrong each time) we rolled into the Susse Chalet in Essex Junction around 3:30am. We were famished and exhausted. We got a room and asked where we could get food at this hour. The woman behind the desk, an angel named Carol, said there was nothing open but that, miraculously, she had ordered a Domino's pizza earlier that night and only eaten two pieces of it. And, she had Crazy Bread as well. She could have asked for all of our money and credit cards and we would have gladly paid her, but she only took the amount of the pizza and we were off to the room to eat it. Carol was our savior. We devoured the food and went to sleep quickly.
Three hours later, day three began. It was sunny but not hot. Another perfect day of Vermont summer cycling weather. The gentle rollers between Essex Junction and Middlebury were broken up only by a huge breakfast at a Bristol diner. Didn't matter that the food wasn't good; we were hungry and we downed it quickly. Thanks to my sore, which seemed to have grown over night, and everyone's general tiredness, we were moving slowly, but we were making progress and got to Middlebury around noon. Our kindred spirits in pain were high, even though we were heading back to the mountains.
We stopped for a good lunch in Middlebury and more conversation with the volunteers. By this point, we were among the last going through. Even though we were slow and in pain, we were in good spirits, so they enjoyed seeing our smiling faces (or so we thought, I guess), and we enjoyed talking to them. They made everything easier. Easier though was not what the next two legs would be. From Middlebury, we had a short trip out of town and then the long climb up Middlebury Gap. We had been down this at night, so we hadn't realized how beautiful the western side of the gap was --- a nice winding road with a great green canopy of trees and a very pretty babbling brook to our side. Yes we were climbing, but it was a perfect Vermont climb. The steepest parts were right at the beginning (rumored to be 18%) and at the top. Ozzie and Phoebe motored ahead of me at the crest, but I was only a bit behind. After regrouping at the top and delighting in making it, yet again, up another climb, we had no idea we were about to face our biggest challenge of the next day and a half:
Descending with a sore ass hurts! What is usually the ecstasy of the long-distance cyclist became a nightmare. Especially with the cut-up road conditions on the eastern side of the gap, the ride down was tough. It was still fun to go fast with little effort, but the pain from bouncing on the saddle at high speeds was hard to take at times. This repeated itself with a vengeance after climbing the Route 100 valley up to the base of Killington and then descending again --- this time on a road with unbelievable ruts every 15 yards or so. Phoebe likened it to continuously having a jackhammer rammed ... well, you finish the rest.
With those two big climbs out of the way, we did our best to get to Ludlow before dark. Our speed was once again slow, but we were having fun, delighting each other with what books we had just read, stories of the beautiful Vermont colors (all the shades of green we were seeing in the summer and the amazing rainbow of colors we knew would appear in a matter of weeks), and, of course, complaints of butt pain. I know it's a recurring theme, but it was true. Ozzie likened it to having a Brill-o pad dragged on his skin; Phoebe insisted her brand new saddle was made of broken glass and nails; I just screamed about my boil. Somehow, our complaints still kept us laughing and having a good time.
The Ludlow stop was dinner, and a generous one at that. We picked up our night gear and headed out for Brattleboro. If we could get there at a decent hour and sleep quickly, we could have a reasonable last day. We climbed Mt. Terrible in the dark and were surprised at how good we felt. At the top, we stopped to stare at the stars. It was a perfectly clear night, so we were mesmerized at how much we could see. Back on the bikes, the descent was actually fun (very smooth road!). Andover pass followed, and we congratulated each other because we thought the worst was behind us. Of course it wasn't. After a good long descent, we thought we'd have an easy ride back to Brattleboro. What we forgot was the constant up and down between Andover and Brattleboro. Many steep ups followed by very cold downhills greeted us. We merrily cursed their existence each time we had to stop at the top to put back on our jackets and at the bottom to remove them.
After some very tired and perhaps hallucinating riding covering the last five miles into Brattleboro, we got to the stop around 3:45. Phoebe convinced the brain surgeon behind the motel desk to give us a room. (He had been worried that the people who reserved it (and weren't there yet - it was 4am!) would not be happy when they showed up. After he finally gave in, he over-dramatically exclaimed that he was going "beyond the point of no return" when he hit the cancel button on the computer. Whatever.) We hit the beds and were out quick.
Phoebe woke us in a panic at 7:30am Sunday. Day four started with us doing very bad math and thinking we had 3 hours to ride 37 miles or we'd miss the next checkpoint. With the speeds we'd been averaging (a dismal 10.2 on the Ludlow- Brattleboro leg), we'd never make it. It wasn't until we'd gotten on our bikes as quickly as possible that we realized we'd been given bad information and really had over 4 hours to get to Bullard Farm. Scared for no reason other than our own stupidity. It sure did get us out of bed and on our bikes quickly though, and was, in retrospect, a funny way to start the morning.
The two climbs between Brattleboro and Bullard Farm were nothing compared to what we'd ridden the day before. Our bodies were in pain, but the end was in sight. For a while, just that thought alone made everything ok, but then the sore kicked in. It was worse than the prior two days, and my cycling was looking very odd. I did everything I could to not sit down. Somehow, I was able to power myself on the flats and up climbs. Don't ask me how; I don't know. It was sheer will power combined with creative pedaling.
We made the Bullard Farm checkpoint with plenty of time (almost an hour and a half to spare) and enjoyed home made omelettes and pancakes from Terry. Thank you! The afternoon was perfect for the trip back to Newton - sunny, but not hot at all. Plus, we had very little climbing to worry us ahead. We set out from Bullard Farm ready for the home stretch. Nothing is easy on BMB, but the last leg is the closest it gets. Even though we were tired and hurting and hungry and dirty, each mile was bringing us one mile closer to the end; yes, that was true of the whole ride, but now it really felt that way. We got to the high point of the leg in Barre and it was all downhill from there. Well, except for a few steep rollers, but what's that to stop a finishing BMB contingent?
Of course, near Harvard (the town, not the college) we had the obligatory stop for ice cream and onion rings. A celebration of the body, of sorts. Our elevation profile showed flats and downhill the rest of the way, and it was right. We were going slowly, but we tasted the end and were excited. With the rush of finishing coming over us, we barely noticed the traffic, as we got closer to civilization again. We turned into the Holiday Inn, went down around the building into the parking lot, and got off our bikes at the finish line. For good. We ate the food provided for us at the end, put our bikes in our cars, said our goodbyes, and went home.
If you've never done BMB or a ride like it, it's hard to describe the emotion of finishing BMB. After riding 750 miles in just under 85 hours (84:44 to be exact), my body was exhausted and in pain; my mind was just as tired but even more elated. I had worked all year for this. I met my goal and that felt great. Not only that, I had done it through incredible unanticipated adversity. A saddle sore sounds pretty minor, but the boil that I developed put me in more physical pain than I had ever been in. And I had to ride 520 miles with it. I had done it with the help of two people, whom I had met four times before, but who turned out to be two of the kindest, smartest, and most generous, good-spirited, and genuinely funny people I had met on a bike, or anywhere else for that matter. Riding in with them and getting to the finish where scores of other riders, volunteers, and coordinators gave us huge applause was overwhelming. We knew they gave everyone the ovation, but it felt, for that moment, like it was just for us and we were the special ones. And, we were - everyone who finished BMB was special.
Writing about it now, two months later, still gets me choked up. It's hard to explain and I'm not sure if it's every BMB experience or just the particular one I had with the pain I went through. But, it was an ordeal that was as emotionally challenging as it was physically challenging. Yet it was an immensely enjoyable ordeal in many ways that are almost impossible to explain -- the beauty of Vermont is unrivaled (in my mind) and there's no better way to see it than by bike; the thrill of the physical motion of riding is, as always, simply glorious, being supported by wonderful volunteers, seeing riders from all over who are a great group of people, and spending four days with two newfound friends who gave me strength beyond what I thought I had is awe- inspiring; and completing something so hard, that you have worked so long for, is invigorating and satisfying beyond words.
All of those things, are to me, what randonneuring is all about.