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Sweeter'N Hell

Annual Wichita Falls bike ride tests both strength and heat endurance.

By John H. Ostdick

After 36 years, Wichita Falls’ annual Hotter’N Hell Hundred still plays out as bicycle high theater.

Although the plot (the course) and local characters (friendly and enthusiastic) remain basically the same each year, the players (up to 13,000) and plot twists — Hotter’N, Windier’N or Wetter’N — can fluctuate wildly. Hence, no two rides are identical.

The ride’s century word play is part of Texas lore. Locals developed the idea as the linchpin to the city’s centennial celebration in 1982, a 100-mile ride now held annually on a Saturday in late August (always nine days before Labor Day), a time when 100-degree days are the Wichita Falls norm.

Today’s HHH is light-years ahead of original organizer Roby Christie’s first 100-miler, when a late registration rush exceeded expectations and 600 riders rode with numbered bibs hand-printed on paper plates pinned to their shirts. No fancy pants or high-tech in sight. Since then, the HHH has added a USA Cycling race, a half-marathon, a mountain bike ride, a trail run and a fixed-gear criterium (a blistering race in which cyclists on fixed-gear, single-speed bicycles with no brakes zoom around a closed circuit) to the weekend.

racing helmets

People from throughout the world join the legions of Texans in the annual pilgrimage to both pedal and sweat prodigiously. Elaine McKinney’s infectious enthusiasm is repeated exponentially among the event’s 4,000 volunteers.

“We have a saying at the Hotter’N Hell: You can’t quit unless you die, or move away,” she says, laughing.

McKinney is sitting in her office on a very mild last day of July, perusing a limp flag outside her window. The 61-year-old has ridden in every HHH — “36 years, and knock on wood, I’ll be riding in many more.” She has varied her ride over the years: Fifty miles on her first, and eight 100-mile finishes (including a “wonderful” 100 to mark her 60th birthday in 2016).

A competitive runner at the time, McKinney was new to cycling for the maiden HHH. Her experience is one repeated by about 330,000 riders since.

“That was the farthest I’d ever ridden in my life, but it proved self-satisfying, so I set my sights for higher things,” says McKinney, who has served on the HHH steering committee for the past 10 years. “I’m a social rider — if I can’t talk when I ride, I’m not happy. I made friends with a thousand people that year.”

Occasionally, annual plot twists have nothing to do with the weather. McKinney recalls being somewhere around the 25-mile marker about 15 years ago when an emu got loose from a local farm and “ran with us for miles.”

“We just rocked along, and watched that he, she or whatever, never came into the road,” she recalls. “That was really fun.”

crowd

Plano-based “Bikin’ Mike” Keel, who worked for a bike shop as a HHH course mechanic in its early days, says he was the inaugural ride’s only mechanic.

The rider/trainer started cycling solo in 1974, continuing alone for about 13 years before trying an organized ride. Now a veteran of a handful of 100-mile rides, Keel has been training others for about 25 years. He usually rides the 100-kilometer route so that he can be at his hospitality shelter as his clients finish. He packs chests with towels soaking in an icy slush for post-race cool-downs.

Keel, who pulls a trailer with a sound system, figures he has logged almost 175,000 miles since 1974 without ever entering a timed race.

“I just ride so I can eat more food, and it’s working so far,” he says, laughing. “One of my big hallmarks is that in 43 years, I’ve never cramped on a bike ride. I ride within my limitations. This is ride number 31 for me.”

Keel encourages aspiring HHH participants to follow a two-thirds rule: Use spring rides to build up to two-thirds of your Hotter’N Hell target distance and keep that as your long ride.

Riding buddy Don Knight and I are not among the legion of HHH veterans. We have considered doing Wichita Falls since he started riding with me in 2011, but logistics had never clicked. We decided to at least get our feet wet in 2017 by tackling the 50-miler.

Knight, 59, a Dallas senior assistant city attorney, and I (a year his elder) are not big on formal training. We ride between 55 and 75 miles a week at a leisurely rate. We joke that while we never finish last on rides, we often have talked a while with those who did. I’m not even real fond of riding with large crowds, yet we’ve completed a weeklong, 400-plus-mile cross-Iowa ride, and do a couple of organized rides each season.

We figure that we’ve already done one “hotter-than-hell” odyssey this year, an early-August 42-mile jaunt in Rockwall’s Hot Rocks event, where a 108-degree heat index and oppressive humidity almost did us in. So we’re delighted when Wichita Falls greets us Friday afternoon with an 80-degree day, and almost giddy when forecasts call for light easterly winds rather than the traditional, daunting, in-your-face southern blast that normally plagues the ride’s final 20 miles.

The downtown buildings hosting the packet pick-up, marketplace and dining facilities are bustling Friday evening. Outside, elaborate Austin-based Bike Zoo creations tricked up as a bald eagle and glowing bugs attract countless selfies. Elaine McKinney is at her post at the packet pick-up entrance, answering questions and troubleshooting.

This year, 9,238 participants are registered for the various Saturday distances.

decorated bike

We enter the Kay Yeager Coliseum for an HHH ritual — a spaghetti, salad and breadstick all-you-can-eat dinner. North Texas Restaurant Association volunteers started preparing sauce at 7 a.m. to top about 300 pounds of spaghetti being fed to about 2,500 diners (proceeds are donated to community organizations and interfaith ministries).

We join a sea of bent-over heads at tables on the coliseum floor, slurping spaghetti and sauce into carbo-loading mouths.

Our Sweeter’N Hell Saturday begins early, in a dark hotel parking lot loading up our bikes. My good morning greeting — “it’s only 72 degrees” — prompts the first of many shared smiles on this day.

We weave through heavy traffic to a downtown parking spot and begin a memorable interlude common to all who ride HHH. We roll slowly through thousands of bikes, bobbing helmets, miles of stretched lycra and the clacking of bike shoes as strangers talk like old friends.

We find the 50-miler staging area (100-mile speedsters front the pack, and then the other 100-milers, 100K riders, 50-milers and so on are staged along 10 city blocks). It’s Group Selfie City. The 50-mile contingent includes a whole lot of age and size variation. A grizzled, stout fellow in front of us wears a T-shirt that proclaims, “Team Face Plant Member in Training.”

By the time the starting cannon from Fort Belknap thunders eight blocks away at 7:05 and two T-38s from nearby Sheppard Air Force Base do a screaming flyover, more than 1,000 wheel-to-wheel 50-milers hurry up and wait. More than 6,000 riders are crammed among the skyscrapers in front us. About 25 minutes later, we are given the green light and slowly lurch up Scott Avenue and across a bridge above the rusty-brown Wichita River. Locals line the street, standing or seated in lawn chairs, having doughnuts and coffee, waving and encouraging all the riders on.

We fall into a steady rhythm, enjoying a day that will tie the record low for a HHH high temperature, 84, set in 1996 (the high is 106 set in 1988, according to executive director Chip Filer). Clouds shelter our first 25 miles before we ever feel the effects of the full sun. We gulp pickle juice (and, at one stop, slurp on a pickle juice snow cone), suck down water and chew on orange slices at rest stops while being serenaded by Beatles tunes and encouraged by cheery volunteers.

We tire but don’t waver from our pace, although we speculate several times that we might be faring differently if it were 102 degrees. We get a real boost as we turn onto Sheppard Air Force Base and pass through hundreds of cheering trainees lining “Airmen’s Alley.” I extend my hands from my handlebars like wings and make sweeping loops, flying a Sweeter’N Hell grin.

selfie

After that boost, the last four miles are a breeze.

As we cross the finish line, an announcer broadcasts, courtesy of the data hookup with my bike bib’s electronic chip: “That’s John Ostdick finishing 50 miles. It is the 60-year-old’s first Hotter’N Hell.” (According to “Chiptime,” I end up finishing 622nd of the 945 entrants in the 50.)

A small volunteer sea waits with a medal for each still-moving finisher. It’s frequently an awkward handoff, but each is bestowed with a grand smile.

Sitting under his awning, Keel beams as he welcomes his clients from their rides. He, like most of the crowd wandering by, wears his finishing medal proudly.

My buddy and I reward ourselves with a cold refreshment and some post-ride nourishment.

“Here’s what most people who aren’t bicycle enthusiasts don’t get,” he says in post-game commentary. “You don’t have to be a fitness maven or triathlete to finish a long-distance bike ride. You need to train, but you can get in good enough shape without people passing you and saying, ‘You must be a marathon runner.’ You don’t have to look like that to do this and enjoy it. And bottom line, it is enjoyable.”

Sweeter ’Ndeed.

No telling what players the 2018 HHH will feature — Hotter’N, Windier’N, Wetter’N or even Sweeter Still’N — but Wichita Falls will hold it. And they, by the thousands, will come.


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