The MS150 – Cycling from Houston to Austin

I can’t believe that more than two weeks has passed since I completed the MS150 – cycling from Houston to Austin in the US over the course of a weekend.  The MS150 was a huge milestone for me – it marked my first (mile) century ride.  And it opened up a new mindset for me – one which is about enjoying and having confidence in all that I *can* do, rather than fearing what I can’t. 

Oh Texas!

I was really excited about doing the MS150.  For years my friend Greg has been telling me about this ride.  About the great organisation, the thousands of people who do it, and he has been asking me if I wanted to join.  I decided in 2010 that 2011 would be the year that I would ride from Houston to Austin.  I signed up for the Strong Like Bull training camp to focus on my cycling (and ensure I’d continue training through the winter).  My Coach and I agreed that a focus on cycling would be great for developing leg strength, and would help in my overall triathlon performance.  And there would be crossover benefits to my running too, which I have so far found the hardest of the triathlon disciplines.

I made my flights, signed up for the ride, joined the St Arnold team, and then proceeded to worry.

My St Arnold jersey. Mm. Beer.

Everyone told me that the first time you ride 100 miles is hard.  I wondered if I had trained adequately.  I fretted endlessly over email to Greg.  I thought he was going to kill me, or at best leave me by the side of the road.  My experiences at Strong Like Bull made me very nervous about the hills everyone talked about in the state park on day two… 

Before boarding the flight on Thursday I just decided that I was going to have fun.  Leave my nerves in London, and focus on soaking up the experience, and enjoying myself as much as possible.  So I landed in Texas happy, and ready to see what I could do.

I am glad I landed with this mindset, as Friday morning could have knocked me completely off plan if I was not determined to have as much fun with the experience as possible.  I knew my bike had been having issues since Spain, but I hadn’t bothered taking it for a check up.  I just figured the gears were slipping and that with a little tweaking (Greg knew how and had a stand or we could go to his local bike shop) that everything would be fine.  Boy was I wrong.  Turns out that my left shifter was broken – it did not “index” meaning that when I moved from small ring to big ring, it would not click and stay in place.  Meaning I could not move between rings on my gearing.  I could choose the big gear, and lock in, not be able to shift, and grind through the ride; or I could choose the small gear, not be able to shift, and spin my legs furiously on flat sections.  I decided that if that is how I would have to ride, then that’s how I’d ride.  It wouldn’t be pretty but I would do it.  Greg had a spare left shifter (incredible luck!) so we decided to try to find someone to do the replacement.  We drove to his bike shop and they pointed us in the direction of the Expo.  We went to the Expo and they pointed us to Bike Barn.  We crossed our fingers and hoped that they could replace the shifter, so that my ride would be better than the single ring solution that was the fallback plan.  Thankfully, Bike Barn came through for us and sorted me out.  So I now have a frankenbike – mixed components for my shifters with DuraAce (circa 2004) on my left thanks to Greg and Bike Barn, and on my right the stock 105 set that came with my bike.  While we were at Bike Barn I also mention slipping I was having, so they adjusted my rear gears too, and I was all ready for the big ride.

Day 1 – The Century Day

What can I say about Day 1?  I did my first century ride! 

We started our ride at 7am from the Shell offices in the Energy Corridor in Houston, so right by the Tully Stadium start line.  Greg rode with me at a nice 25kph average for the first 30 minutes, to make sure I was ok, then I sent him on his way.  He is a really strong cyclist and can easily average about 21 miles per hour, so I told him I’d see him at the end point.

Day 1 was brilliant in so many ways.  I stopped at almost all of the rest stops, just to soak up the atmosphere.  The ride into LaGrange was beautiful – through rolling countryside, past big bales of hay.  I heard my first cowbell on a bike ride.  We went through brilliant towns with great shops advertising “We Buy Quality Junk”.  I smiled a lot, and really enjoyed every moment of being on the rode, just rolling along, chatting with people, and being in the sun.

My rolling average for the day was about 25kph, but if there is one thing I know better about myself now, it is that when I am at a rest stop, I really do rest.  I stop, chat, slow down, and then lose track of time.  I had so much fun but I can’t say that I breezed in and out of the stops!  I think if I do the MS150 again in the future I will really approach this aspect of the ride differently – no need to do all the stops.  But as a first time rider, I loved it.  It made for a really social amazing day.  Although it was kind of frustrating having fresh legs and being around people who were clearly not happy.  Cycling is not a chore – it is a pleasure.  I tried to do my best to help people to smile, to see the joy in the fact that they were riding 100 miles – how cool is that?!

I had a few minor issues on Day 1.  Like dropping my water bottle in the scorching sun around mile 70.  With 30 miles to go, and only electrolyte mix in my other bottle (and a thirst for water) this was not a smart move.  The 10 miles to the next rest station went very slowly, as my speed dropped to about 20kph.  And when I got to the next stop, I knew I had hit the dehyrdration zone that I had to fix to prevent cramping.  I had three water bottles of cool water, to try to fix things.  And an electrolyte tablet to try to keep my balance correct (and prevent cramping).  The fact was that I was starting to overheat.  Make no mistake – Texas is hot, and this was only April!  With clear skies, and 85 degree weather, on open highways, it was hot.  My last 30 miles became about avoiding dehydration and trying to keep an electrolyte balance in my body, trying to stay cool and comfortable.  I think for future rides, although I love the First Endurance EFS drink mix, for such long rides when I may be apt to getting tired and fumbling bottles, I may consider using just two water bottles and then the Hammer Edurolyte electrolyte tablets to avoid only having drink mix (and not water).  Something I will continue to think about…  Special thanks to my friend Jon who lent me his DeSoto arm coolers as they really saved my skin, and my body temperature, from the punishing sun.  And to Greg for making sure that I had a few e-caps in my jersey.

My second minor issue on Day 1 was saddle pressure.  I had packed all of my small packets of Chamois Butt’r (anti chafe cream) in my overnight pack.  I thought I would be just fine on the ride with an occassion top up (from other riders who had big tubes) and my morning application – I mean, I had done 100k rides before with no problem.  And I was wearing super comfortable shorts (the DeSoto 400 milers). So I didn’t think I would have any problems.  But I have always had an issue with pressure from my saddle.  Sure, this is A LOT BETTER since having my fit at Cyclefit UK.  But then again, I had not ridden more than 65 miles or so before Saturday April 16th.  I can confirm that despite good shorts (which do not move at all when riding, absolutely no rubbing from the shorts), and despite a comfortable fit to optimise my cycling power, I had an issue with pressure.  I absolutely hated my saddle by the end of Day 1.  And without chamois cream (to just cool things down and relieve me from pressure irritation) I was in a world of hurt. 

Ah, bliss…

When I finished Day 1 we headed off to the Shell station to meet our ride to our accommodation for the evening.  Denby Morrison and his wife Nicolette hosted about 10 of us that evening, at their place in the hill country of Texas.  While at the Shell station I noticed this…

Slush Puppies!

The Slush Puppy… Basically frozen goodness – ice, sugar and flavouring.  Absolutely perfect after a day of riding in the Texas heat.  Ok, truth be told I would have preferred a Slurpee.  But the Slush Puppy was good enough for me! grin

With enough time to buy and polish off a Slush Puppy, we then met Denby and Nicolette – they open their house to riders from Shell each year as their contribution to the MS150, and my friend Greg was kind enough to include me with the Shell bunch.  As a former Shell employee, I can say that is one of the biggest strengths of the company – the absolute quality of people who work there.  I felt instantly welcome and among friends on Saturday evening and Sunday morning.

I am sure everyone wondered if I was ok on Saturday.  The fact is that I had just ridden my first 100 miles.  After any big effort, as with all big training I do, I went into a state of collapse.  I think some of this collapse is neuro fatigue from having CMT, but the fact is, maybe everyone goes through this.  Anyway, it really worried Greg K (the other Greg in the crowd) – I was ok I promise Greg! 

The hospitality Denby and his wife provided was fantastic – cool beers and soft drinks on arrival at their house, a fantastic dinner (oh yum I think that may have been the best pasta ever), and then I collapsed in peace after dinner was over. Okay, some say I collapsed into my pasta – I deny (or perhaps resemble) that assertion!  The next morning I woke up refreshed and ready to ride again, set up nicely with a fabulous breakfast.  Pecan cinamon rolls that were to die for set me up nicely for the day (along with fresh fruit, pigs in a blanket, scrambled eggs, canadian bacon – a feast!).  I was super happy to have two small tubes of chamois cream in my pack.  I dressed for the day and readied myself to see how my legs felt after a century.  And then we were off.  Thank you Denby and Nicolette!

Day 2 – The Hills!

If I had to choose one word to sum up day two, it would be FANTASTIC.  I had such an amazing day.

First of all, I started the ride worried about the hills.  Everyone had talked them up.  I think those I stayed with on Saturday saw the state I was in and worried if I could do them.  I was a bit concerned.  But after the first mile I knew that my legs were fine, and that I was fine, and that the hills would be fine.  I just knew it. 

But before I could enjoy the ride, I had another bike issue.  My gears had been slipping on Day 1 (despite being checked) and I thought I had better stop at the rest stop at the state park entry just to get another look at things.  As Salt ‘n Pepa played as background music, I waited for the Bike Barn folks checked out my bike again. 

GS Gazzetta – represent!

I danced around, chatted to some more people, and about 45 minutes later I was fixed.  The verdict?  A bent rear derailleur.  Finally assured of a smooth ride, I set off for the day.

I am so glad that I rode the hills on Day 2.  It was a gorgeous ride, through the Bastrop State Park.  Forest covered, small roads, up and down, just challenging enough to enable me to ride the hills the way I learned how in Spain – building momentum down, attacking on the way up, recovering after the crests, and starting over again.  I absolutely loved this part of the day.

The rest of Day 2?  Well I stopped regularly to reapply my Chamois Butt’r.  And I made my way to the finish.  I enjoyed the ride a lot, although I wasn’t very happy with my choice to enjoy the ride rather than ride like the wind when I was climbing the hills into Austin with fresh legs surrounded by people who were struggling.  It is hard to ride up hills agressively in a lane where it is a squeeze to have 3 people abreast!  I managed though, and was pleased to when I hit the finish line.  I felt strong and good.  Happy.  And as another rider reminded me, I was proud to have done both the century and the hills on my first ever MS150 ride – sometimes it takes someone you don’t know to remind you of the accomplishments you are having!

I was greeted at the finish line by Greg and Bob, my friends from Shell, and Greg and I managed to locate Lisa @bemadthen from Twitter who came up for the day to support the riders.  It was awesome *finally* meeting Lisa after years of corresponding with her and following her blog.  And I must say she is as fantastic in real life as I knew she would be! 

Me and Lisa in front of the Texas state capitol!

Last thoughts

Probably one of the most inspiring parts of this ride was seeing the riders with MS on the course and at the rest stops.  Multiple sclerosis can be a debilitating disease, causing those with MS to lose mobility and function with no known cure.

MS is a disease of the myelin – the coating of our nerve cells – and in that sense is similar to CMT, my nerve disease.  I was talking with a rider with MS at one of the rest stops, and was surprised we shared many of the same symptoms – fatigue, loss of muscle strength in our lower legs, an impaired sense of balance. 

I was asked why I was doing the MS150, if I had a special reason for supporting the search for a cure.  To me, the research into MS and its causes will undoubtedly help in progressing the understanding about how the myelin sheath works, and how myelin can be regenerated or protected.  This understanding will have crossover benefits to those with CMT, the most common neurological disorder impacting 1 in 2500 people (for comparison MS is estimated to impact 2 in 100,000 people).

During my rest stop chat, I felt uplifted.  Inspired.  Another rider was telling me how she was managing her disease, that she felt that activity and a healthy lifestyle were the key to a happy long life.  I felt like I found an instant soul mate – and then we parted for the day, I didn’t see her again on the ride.

She brought to sharp focus the mindset that I took away from the ride – the embrace of what we can do. I am open about why I started my journey – because I was scared of a future that may see me with less mobility than today.  But I need to keep reminding myself of why I am continuing to stay active and to focus on my fitness – because I like it, because I like what I have become able to do, because it makes me feel good.  I want to get to the point that I don’t need other people to remind me of this – I want to live and breathe this attitude all by myself.  Just like I have developed those leg muscles on the first photo, it may take time, I need to work on my mental game as much as my physical now.  But I think the MS150 was a first great step along this path.

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