It’s January 2021 and I’m sitting indoors on Zwift watching my avatar roll through the hills of Watopia thinking to myself “I could be upstairs in my pajamas, enjoying a that last bottle of Founder’s CBS over a game of Scrabble with my wife, but instead I’m sitting here in the dank basement on my trainer watching yet another episode of Selling Sunset. What’s the point of ‘training’ when another year of racing is going to be ruined by the pandemic?” It turns out I wasn’t the only one feeling this way.
As my Zwift Racing League team chatted post-race on Discord following another sweaty suffer-fest, the topic of conversation turned to plans for the spring. The majority of us had nothing on the calendar we felt confident about or comfortable with. All the events that were still happening felt too big, too soon, too unsafe. What if, my buddy Nathan said, we made our own event to train for?
With the COVID vaccine still hardly more than a twinkle in Dr. Fauci’s eye, any event would need to be small. The best way to limit the field size, we decided, was to make the event so stupidly long that few would want to do it.
The seed for the Big Bertha 500k had been planted.
Four months later, a lot had changed. The icy Michigan winter was finally starting to thaw, people were getting vaccinated, and real races were happening across the country without incident. Also, over numerous Facebook Group threads and RideWithGPS / GravelMap.com route iterations, Big Bertha 500k had blossomed and was ready for harvest.
At 11:30pm on a Friday, May 15th, 7 fools unloaded their bikes in a dirt parking lot lit by headlamps in Dexter Michigan. Our goal–ride 500k of gravel, sand, and tarmac fast enough to be back before the local pizza joint closed the following evening.
Rolling out a few minutes before midnight, our group enjoyed a nice, social two hours of riding. I knew everyone in the group to some degree, some from group rides in the Ann Arbor area and others from Zwift TTTs and Discord voice chats. While the dirt roads were more pothole-ridden than usual, the conversation was flowing and morale was high. But, as they say, all good things must come to an end.
Conventional wisdom is that you want to start out the ride a little bit chilly so that you are dressed right once the temperatures warm up. Starting at 42°F in my Castelli skin suit, a light vest, arm warmers, and mountain bike gloves, I was, without a doubt, lightly dressed compared to my jacket-wearing, tights-clad, and neoprene-bootied riding companions.
Unfortunately, conventional wisdom doesn’t always apply when you are doing something abnormally stupid. Three factors turned a bad decision into a borderline dangerous one: 1) It turns out that midnight isn’t even close to the coldest part of the night. Starting at 2am, the temperature started to plunge. 2) When I looked at the weather report a couple days out, it predicted a low of 39°F, but it ended up getting down to 32°F–a huge difference when you are already underdressed. 3) Instead of my wonderful thermal arm warmers, I had accidentally grabbed my UV sun sleeves which are designed to wick moisture and cool you down!!
With no one having any layers to spare and no relief in sight until the sun rose at 7am, I went from cold to miserable really quickly. I was too cold to drink from my bottles or unwrap a granola bar–even off the bike. The only thing I could do to move the needle towards warmth was getting on the front of the group and pulling hard. I don’t know much about pacing super-long rides like these, but I do know it’s best when you don’t have 10-minute pulls at 50% above your average power for the ride.
Around 4am, I wasn’t sure I’d make it until sunrise. I asked my friend Nathan if his parents who were going to be meeting us at mile 130 with supplies might be able to drive backwards on the course to meet us, but we didn’t have much cell service, and coordinating the meeting point would have been prohibitively difficult.
Long story short, I suffered but (obviously) didn’t die. The sun came up, the fog burned off, and by 6:30am, I could feel my fingers again.
Until mile 100, our group of 7 had been staying together quite well despite my hypothermia-preventing hammering through the night. At this point, we traded the smooth, hard, and flat dirt of SE Michigan for the rolling hills and sandier paths in the middle of the mitten. About an hour before our breakfast stop, I pulled ahead with two other riders, Stephen and Nick. While the whole group would briefly reconvene for a quick gas station Subway breakfast, I would find myself spending the next 10 hours riding with Stephen and Nick.
I’ve known Nick for a while. When I first moved to Ann Arbor in 2016, Nick gave me a spot on the Ann Arbor Running Company racing team, providing me with singlets and shoes as I spent 3 years racing everything from miles to marathons. When my running days were permanently ended by an achilles injury in 2018 and I was looking to buy a bike, Nick sold me his old cyclocross steed that sparked my love of riding. While I had moved on to my 3T Exploro by winter of 2019 and had found new sponsorship from the 3T Q+M team, Nick’s been a consistent presence in my active life over the last 5 years.
Before starting Big Bertha, I only knew Stephen as a voice on Discord and a set of really big numbers on ZwiftPower. Stephen and I raced together in the Zwift Racing League for team ATP, but we had never met in person since I was in Michigan and he was in Arizona. When Stephen heard about the plan for the Big Bertha and realized that he’d be fully vaccinated in time, he booked a ticket to Detroit. Who wouldn’t fly across the country to bike for 17 hours with a group of strangers?
Nick, Stephen, and I were making good time between our Subway breakfast at mile 130 and our party store pizza lunch at mile 210, averaging a little over 19 miles per hour on the mixed terrain. Still, the flowing conversation of the early stages of the ride had dwindled to a trickle as we spent increasing amounts of time staring at our Garmin’s, willing the miles to pass by more quickly. By the time we rolled into the parking lot of the Portland Party Store, all of us would have been content to call it a day.
The Bloated Belly
Despite Big Bertha being my longest ride by a wide margin, my lungs and legs were never a limiting factor during the ride. Throughout the day, I felt strong out of the saddle going up the hills and was able to take long fast pulls on the flat sections. If ever I’ve had indefatigable, Superman legs, it was during the Big Bertha. But, just as Superman has a Kryptonite problem, I was having belly issues.
Normally, I have an iron stomach on the bike. Granola bars, sandwiches, potatoes, pizza, drink mix, baby carrots, it doesn’t matter; I can eat it and keep on riding. My stomach sorrows for Bertha were not a result of mid-ride nutritional choices but rather of pre-ride hubris…
**Flash back** It’s 9:00am the morning before I set off on Big Bertha. I receive a text that a co-worker brought in donuts from my favorite bakery. I scurry down to the faculty lounge and find 3 dozen of the tastiest, greasiest donuts money can buy. Not wanting to take more than my share, I grab an apple fritter and head back to my classroom. Walking by an hour later, I notice that the donuts remain nearly untouched. It would be a shame, I reason, to let good donuts get stale and I do need to “fuel up” for the big ride later. The result of this logic is that by the time I finish up my day of teaching at 3:30pm, I’ve eaten 6-7 big donuts.
While I don’t know the precise details or metabolic pathways of how this played on a physiological level, the result was that for a 48 hour period (12 hours prior to the ride, 18 hours on the bike, and 18 hours after finishing) there was, how to put this politely, a backup in the plumbing system; food was going in and nothing was coming out. At times, it felt like nothing more than post-Thanksgiving-dinner fullness. Other times it felt like how I imagine the 39th week of pregnancy. As a result, from mile 140 to 310, I was riding a fine line of eating enough to not bonk but not so much that the stomach pain would make me have to drop out.
At mile 220, Nick, Stephen and I were approaching what was starting to feel like the homestretch when I felt a creak in my left pedal. Two minutes later as we are cruising at 23mph down a fast section of road, my foot goes flying off the pedal, and I narrowly avoid eating dirt. Had I accidentally unclipped? No, it turns out my Crank Brothers Egg Beater had completely detached from the spindle that screws into the cranks.
The pedal was toast, and attempts at jamming the two parts back together or attaching them with duct tape proved short lived and futile. We seemed to be in luck when we realized that there was a bike shop on route only 5 mile away but then had our hopes dashed when we called them up and found out that they didn’t have a single Crank Brothers pedal in stock. After making some more calls and finding out the closest shop with compatible pedals was 20 miles off route, it was looking like the end of the line for me.
“Oh shit, I have an idea!” Nick exclaimed. Turns out a guy named Ryan (an acquaintance of mine and a good friend of Nick’s) had just moved from Ann Arbor to Lansing and lived about 25 miles from where we were stopped. Two minutes later, Ryan, my guardian angel, was in his car on his way first to a bike shop and then to me us enroute. Ten miles of slowish, kinda-one-legged pedaling in Nick and Stephen’s draft later, Ryan showed up with the new pedals and we were back in business.
The Blessed End
The final 70 miles of the ride were surprisingly unremarkable. My stomach was doing a little better than earlier and my legs felt no worse for the wear. Seeing the miles tick by and get down to the normal, midweek ride distance was encouraging. The final 25 miles were all on familiar roads, my home turf. We had planned to grab some beer and food at the brewery where we had started our journey 18 hours earlier, but when I arrived I was, for possibly the first time in my adult life, too tired for beer, and noshed on some room temperature, leftover pizza from lunch.
Back on the road, two more of our original 7 continued their journey having lost half of their quartet between miles 210 and 250. While I wanted to stick around and celebrate their finish, I needed sleep, so I hopped in the car and drove the 8 miles home.
Reflecting on the experience, there is no doubt that it was too long to be “fun”. Still, I felt an acute sense of accomplishment and don’t feel that I suffered any long-term physical or emotional damage. Three weeks later when I would roll up to the line of the Sancho 200 in Traverse City, my first true ultra bike race, I had a little voice in the back of my head telling me that compared to the Big Bertha 500k, at least it wouldn’t be as long (true) or hard (well, probably not true, but that’s a story for another day).
Thank you to Nathan Larraza for the immense amount of work that you put in to make this winter pipedream a spring reality. Also to his parents who drove to meet us with supplies and cheering at a couple points on the course.
Thank you to the 3T Q+M team who keep me rolling and well outfitted (if only I had started the ride with my awesome jacket…). With all the stressors and complications of an event like this, it’s comforting to have full confidence in my 3T Exploro. It’s my one and only bike, after 1.5 years of taking it on everything from racy road rides to slippery singletrack, I had no worries about Big Bertha’s 500ks of mixed surface.
Finally, thanks to my wife Amanda who supports me enthusiastically as I train for and go on these adventures.