Greg Miller’s A2A Race Report

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Athens to Atlanta 2017:  An 87 Mile Skate with Hurricane Nate

By Greg Miller

I may have done tougher physical and mental challenges before in my life but I can’t remember when!  The A2A skate a few years ago comes to mind when severe cramps hit me at mile 60 making the last 27 miles almost unbearable, but that was in good weather!  Doing the A2A 87 mile skate is physically challenging with all the hills and the raw distance; mentally challenging because you really need to concentrate the whole time to miss bad spots in the roads every minute of the skate or they will take you out.  Double that in the rain where safe looking wet pavement is hiding a pothole that will take you down.

When we finished the 87 mile skate this year, one of the volunteers asked me if I ever thought I would skate through a hurricane since we were basically skating through the leading weather edge of hurricane Nate.  Now that’s a new story to tell, the time we had skating through a hurricane!  Hey, the Swiss folks skated through snow this year so why not hurricanes too!

Antti Haljak, a national champion from Estonia, finished 7th in the 87 mile skate in 5:34.  Antti told us about the Swiss snow skate where he froze his shins.  So now he has skated in snow and a hurricane! The rain and wind got harder and harder as the skate progressed nearing Atlanta but fortunately the heavy thunderstorms forecasted just two days earlier with winds up to 30 mph moved more quickly to the West leaving us lots of rain and only occasional gusts up to maybe 15 mph.  The humidity was in the high 90s and temps in the 70s with just mist at the start in Athens.

In those conditions everything was slick especially tar snakes so you had to be very careful with the race starting out in the dark at 7 am. With Eddy Matzger heading the charge and the lead pack in tow, A2A started fairly quick doing the first 38 miles in about 2:12.  Our friend from Atlanta, Brian Geisel, did fantastic hanging with the lead pack for the full 38 miles where he ended the day in a sprint with Jesus Guzman, a national champion from Venezuela.  Brian got second place only 1 second behind Guzman for the 38 mile skate.

I made the mistake of hanging with the lead pack for twenty miles and then getting dropped.  I ended up skating the next 10 miles with the eventual woman’s 87 mile winner, Sandra Spirovska who did the 87 miles in 6:11.  We were both hoping the chase pack would catch us because we were working very hard on the hilly slick roads.  The chase pack finally came to our aid which we skated with almost to the finish.  Brian Oswald, Bruce Sienkowski, Ben Price, Jessica Wright, Johnny Chen and Jesse Flores were in the chase pack helping to push the pace.  Jesse, Johnny and Jessica all finished the day placing in great position in the 38 mile skate.

It was quite a bit more challenging than previous years due to the rain.  Mike Pantelakis, who won the 49 mile skate joined us and was near the front of our chase pack about mile 79.  Mike put his skate down on what looked to be solid wet pavement but it was a puddle hiding a pothole and he went down hard.  Fortunately, everyone else in the pace line missed him and he popped back up fairly quick keeping us all together.  The blessing of the wet pavement is that falls like that don’t take much skin because you just skid a bit and don’t burn your skin suit and create a patch of road rash on your body.  It looked like he only scraped off his bib number on the side of his leg.

From 38 miles on the chase pack was primarily a group of five 87 milers including Brian, Bruce, Ben, Sandra and myself.  The chase pack stuck together pretty well throughout the race.  At one point Ben Price’s glasses popped off his face at the bottom of a steep hill moving pretty fast.  We probably waited five minutes at the top of the next hill for him to go back and get his glasses.  That’s when Mike Pantelakis caught us.

To give you an idea of the how bad the conditions were, a bit further on the route a tree went down taking out a power line.  This happened after the lead pack went by but when our chase pack came upon this mess the fire department would not let us pass because of down live wires!  Maybe the swoosh of the lead pack’s tremendous speed sucked the tree down in their wake or maybe a gust of hurricane Nate blew it down, I don’t know, but it was probably a good idea for us to go back up the hill and detour around the live wires even though it added over a mile to the skate and lost us another 7 minutes or so.

I don’t think anyone was willing to risk electrocution for that extra time but I am not so sure of that.  Some of the later skaters did not have to reroute because they were able to clear the down lines relatively fast.  Silver hill, the superfast downhill plummet in A2A, was challenging to say the least this year.  The organizers warned us in the prerace update that pavement on Silver hill was bad on both sides of the right lane so you needed to stay in the middle of the lane.  So when our chase pack got to Silver hill we ended up spreading out somewhat instead of being in a tight pace line.  The complication was that the rain was creating several puddles in the middle of the lane so not only was there bad pavement but you couldn’t really see it coming very well.  At one point plummeting down Silver hill I looked at my GPS watch and saw 39 mph and my next image was busted up pavement coming toward my right foot.  It had to be quite a sight seeing a guy going 39 mph balancing on his left leg, right foot in the air, with water spraying up on both sides.

I have never been happier trying to climb the next hill fully intact having survived that terrifying roller coaster ride! All the intersections were more challenging this year with the rain and slippery oily spots on the road.  Most of us would drag a skate and slow down on most intersections.  There were a few hair raising pulse pounding times when I saw Brian Oswald or Ben Price get into kamikaze mode.  Maybe they just got tired of trying to stop but at several intersections they just went through dodging speeding cars coming from the left and right and in one case just missing a car coming at us turning left in front of us, yikes!!

This year, all the excellent training with our various local skates, proper diet and race nutrition helped me hold off cramps until mile 77.  Cramps really crippled me at mile 84 where I dropped off the chase pack giving me only 3 miles of torture slip sliding in the rain.  Late in the race, about mile 85 in Atlanta, there is a hill and a sharp right turn you have to make.  I was putting all my 194 lbs of weight into my right skate trying to drag and slow down, I couldn’t make the turn and I couldn’t stop on my own no matter what I did.  Near the bottom of the hill there was a stop sign and fortunately a car stopped there waiting for traffic to clear.  It was a brand new cherry red mustang and I was barreling towards it trying my hardest to slow my progress.  I think the driver saw me in trouble through his rear view mirror.  It was lucky he was there to stop me or it may not have ended so well.  I left him thanking him with only a few hand prints on his trunk, no dents.

I had to climb up the hill and get back on the route with my quadriceps screaming with cramps.  Going through the dark water filled cracked pavement in the tunnel under the bridge was the final tough stretch to navigate at this point by myself.

Having read through my account of the skate it sounds like a terrible event to do.  No doubt it is very challenging especially in the rain and wind but you get a true sense of accomplishment doing the 87 mile skate and camaraderie with all those that did it with you.  It is truly a great experience.

Eddy Matzger won the 87 mile skate in 4:53, Francisco Ramirez was second in 5:03 and Peter Doucet was third in 5:18.  The top guys’ skating technique is so refined the rain and slippery roads did not appear to hurt their times as much.  For me, my time was about an hour slower than last year and I finished 3rd in my 50+ age class in 6:16, so I was happy to have just made it without a fall.  My skating technique is not so refined, yet.

The only other Minnesotan was Molly Sievert who did an excellent job getting 1st place in the Women’s 49 mile skate. I have to say I was truly moved at the end of the race.  I finished at about 1:20 in the afternoon and hung around at the finish line to wait for awards at 6pm.  Throughout the afternoon finishers would come in usually only 1 or 2 at a time.  Everyone would rally and cheer the finishers with yells, whistling and clapping.  It was about 5:45pm and there was a call out that a finisher was coming in.  Rick Sadlier came in on quad roller skates, the only skater on quads having completed the whole 87 miles on the course for 10 hours and 47 minutes, amazing! But that was topped by another skater coming in at about 5:50 pm, Ginger Sadlier from Oakland, CA.  She was the last finisher on inline skates for the full 87 miles.  As she was approaching the finish line she burst into tears, presumably so happy to see the finish, so happy to complete such an amazing feat especially in those conditions being on the course for 10 hours and 48 minutes.  That is impressive, I don’t know about you but I can’t even endure watching TV for 10 hours straight much less skate that long continuously through gushing rain.  Many people around me saw her tears of joy and started yelling wildly for this tough finisher running up to her and congratulating her.  It was an amazing moment to experience!

So Athens to Atlanta 2017 was the 87 mile skate with Hurricane Nate!  The whole weekend was truly memorable but next year, please hold the rain, hopefully Nate and his friends stay a few 1000 miles to the East!!  It’s a good thing they don’t name tornadoes so hopefully we will never have to hear something like that at our Minnesota skates.  Hope to see you in Atlanta next year!