For those of you familiar with the excellent events put on by NJ Randonneurs, you’ll know that routes are typically flat or hilly. Both styles have their fans and there’s much to be said for each, but there’s usually not a whole lot in between on the NJ Rando calendar. What grabbed my attention about this season’s 600K is that it was a hybrid route that was BOTH hilly and flat. Day One was a 217-mile mountain goat special and Day Two was a 158-mile flat coastal cruiser. What’s more, the route was cloverleaf-shaped enabling riders to leave fresh clothes and supplies at base camp for the second day. With a plan so logical, what could possibly go wrong?
Since I hoped to be as rested as possible at the 5:00 AM start, I decided to stay overnight at the event hotel rather than drive to the start in the morning. Fortunately, my pals Bill R. and Jan D. were also in town following a long drive so we enjoyed a hearty meal at a local diner before settling in for a full night’s rest. At the start, riders chatted a bit about the forecast which called for a full morning of rain with drier weather on the horizon. As RBA Joe K. reviewed the route with us the skies opened up and we rode off into a wall of rain that would flood roads and not let up until two and a half hours later.
Luckily, Jan and I had agreed to keep the pace in check on the first day to compensate for an utter lack of training on my part and a rough 400K the weekend before on his. As such, we enjoyed the wet morning ride as much as can be expected, but mild temperatures and the knowledge of dry skies ahead helped significantly. NJ Rando stalwart, volunteer and friend Gil L. served up water, Clif bars and good humor at various points throughout the morning, which really helped keep the morale high on this soggy stage.
The climbing begins in earnest right after the route crosses the Delaware River into PA and we were soon on roads familiar to us from PA Rando events such as the Blue Mountain 400K. There was considerable elevation gain throughout the day, but none of the climbs was particularly epic unlike the various Catskill 600K routes NJ Rando has organized in the past. This ride would be a war of attrition, however, with each spiky roller adding to the damage. By the end of the first day, six riders would DNF.
Following the morning rain, the weather was really quite lovely with a bit of a wind that sometimes helped and occasionally harmed our efforts, but all in all it was a nice day in the saddle. The miles and climbs would have a serious impact on Jan, however, and despite some breaks and soft-pedaling; he would decide to scratch at the control in Easton, PA. Luckily, there was a hotel across the street where he could wait until morning to sort out his transportation back to Vermont.
Luckily, Jan and I were riding with a third rider, Greg K. who made great company on the next 48 miles of evening and night riding to the overnight control, which made the miles go by more quickly. Despite the generally pleasant roads and company, these four dozen miles were rough and I mentally quit the ride at least half a dozen times before reaching the sleep control. This was my first experience with a cloverleaf route and my suspicion that the appeal of quitting half-way through might be stronger with a car sitting in the lot proved to be correct. Despite my misgivings, though, I enjoyed a bit of warm chili and a drink and headed off to shower and sleep setting my alarm for three hours hence just in case I could convince myself to get back onto the saddle.
As is usually the case, three hours of sleep can work wonders and when the alarm went off I jumped up, put on my kit and wheeled my bike back to the common room to fill my bottles and grab some coffee and calories. While flat, the remaining 158-mile stage was longer than I was used to conquering on Day Two of a 600K, so it would be a long day on the saddle regardless of how fast I was pedaling. Fortunately, some young and spry riders also left the sleep control around the same time so I would not be riding alone through the whole second day.
The heat index climbed as the day progressed, but mercifully, the prevailing winds were out of the east so our march through the Pine Barrens was as easy as it could possibly have been. The roads, while magical and mysterious in some respects in this section, are also remarkably monotonous and so I needed to stop at least once to regain my bearings and snap myself awake lest I fall asleep on the bike as I had done on a previous NJ 600K edition riding through these parts.
Several of us hung together through these miles and enjoyed some well-deserved rest at the penultimate control, but it would be all business on the final stretch and my reserves were just not what I had hoped they might be. As a result, my pace slowed to a crawl and I let the faster riders head off without me. While I had hoped for a 35-hour finish on this event, 37 hours felt respectable considering the terrain and my lack of training this winter and spring. I was especially proud at the finish that I resisted the urge to scratch at the sleep control. This confidence has convinced me that I’m ready for all that the Million Meters of Milk 1000K may have in store for me in Wisconsin next week. As always, thanks NJ Rando for an absolutely fabulous event. Your support is second to none.
Up next: The Million Meters of Milk 1000K