Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Death Ride

The Death Ride 
California Tour of the Alps  
(July 14, 2012)

Not a wink of sleep the night prior, heading out from the motel in NV to the Markleeville CA start prior to daylight. 

With Markleeville itself at 5,500 feet, the entire course is at altitude. Would it affect me? Altitude hadn't in years prior, but only time on the bike would tell.

Bikers galore, literally hundreds, starting out in the dark with red tail lights flashing, on the journey from Turtle Rock Park and through the sleeping town of Markleeville in the eastern Sierras -- all bikes heading to the base of Monitor Pass. 

The sunrise was spectacular -- and the morning temperature in the 50's. 

Good road surface, fresh legs, morning light....up and up. Reached the summit of Monitor (8,314 feet) in a good steady pace. Refreshments at top -- and then a spectacular bike ride over and down the other side, with briefly-viewed vistas flying by on 10 miles of downhill wonder. 

Despite what I thought was a heck of a pace, more than a few bikers flew by me like I was standing still. 

Just prior to heading back up, a group of high school boys were manning a water and Cytomax aid station. You gave your bottle as you passed -- and hoped they'd refill and catch up prior to your having to stop. One of the adults announced each 'runner': there goes 'Tom Smith', congratulating each when they completed the handover to their biker. Fun, entertaining -- and a nice convenience.

Up, up, up again on the 2nd ascent. But on Mile 32, my front tire went flat. Managed to fix it in non-record time (and regretted I hadn't made room for carrying a second spare tube). 

My bike was the same Trek 2100 I had used 15 years ago, as was the hand pump...BTW, not so easy to get to 115 psi by hand. Certified 100% Vintage. 

The views at the repair site were great, and with my under-seat bag emptied, out came the mobile and a photo of where the flat happened.

Heading up Monitor (location of flat)
Off I went again into the flow of an amazing kaleidoscope of colors, riders, bikes, helmets, outfits -- well lit by the morning light. In the 'rush' to get back into the flow, I had put down my new sunglasses (for eye safety, as I rarely wear sunglasses), realized my error, headed back down to the spot (probably 1/2 mile back down), and discovered someone had already acquired a freebie. Headed back up again, sans glasses.

As I was heading up, I saw a SAG (support and gear) guy on a motorcycle helping another biker -- and asked to borrow his floor pump to get the psi tire pressure needed. Wishful thinking, I asked if he might have a spare -- and out came exactly what I needed, just in case. Great support! 

Off I went, more time wasted, but a happy camper. Unfortunately, less than 3 miles further up, my rear tire then went flat. Though a faster tube change this time, still no fun.....Soon off again, but this time with no spare. 

Hey, but what are the chances for a 3rd flat in the same day? No worries, right? I later saw another SAG helping someone else and I asked to use his floor pump and if he had a spare (but he didn't).

The ride down Monitor's initial ascent was also amazing.....I kept it under control and even managed to enjoy some of the views. Legs resting, hands on breaks and balance -- for 10 miles. Simply incredible. 10 miles downhill is quite a coast.

The day was heating up....and I paid a lot of attention to drinking, salt pills, constant small snacks. This was going to be a l-o-n-g day. Monitor (up both sides) was just 2 of the 5 ascents.

Back at the bottom of Monitor, we headed out a few rolling miles alongside the East Fork of the Carson River to the start of the ascent of Ebbetts Pass (8,730 feet). I had heard this was the more beautiful of the ascents (it was not part of my first-ever bike ride, the 'The Detour' of 1997, as Ebbetts was storm damaged and closed back then). 

Ebbetts is beautiful, with waterfalls, mountain lakes, and lots of trees (even shaded at many points). But it's also a tougher climb up than the 2 ascents on Monitor. Around 12 miles up, and up and up, with a 12% grade at the end for nature's sense of humor.

As luck would have it, halfway up Ebbetts, my newly replaced front tire tube went flat. How could this be? So I pumped and pumped, hoping it would hold. A few miles later, it didn't. 

Fortunately, another SAG eventually passed and I waved him down, and he too had a spare, his last. So I did the repair, borrowed his pump, and off again.  I checked my tires and psi at many of the rest stops, but all were also out of spares at those locations. Sharp pine needles and steel filaments from car tires were apparently the culprits. 4 flats? No way. 

But my focus had to switch to surviving, i.e. my legs.

Looking out on the first ascent of Ebbetts

Made it OK to the Top of Ebbetts and was actually looking forward to hit the last steep piece, as I knew the summit would be near. But by then it was 55 miles and I felt it. 

Great rest stop at the summit -- but for some reason, my appreciation of each rest stop kept growing -- as did my intake. Lots of food such as mini-bagels & peanut butter, cut bananas, cookies, potato chips, all kinds of drinks (even cold V8), Clif bars, GU and much much more.

The ride down the western side of Ebbetts was also beautiful, though the road surface was challenging. But down is easier than up. Reached the bottom and turn-around, stopped for replenishment, then started back up. 

But by then, the sun was out in full, temperature in the 80's, and it felt even hotter. Fortunately, the 2nd ascent of Ebbetts was 'only' 5-6 miles (shorter than the other side), but 'trying' would be a polite description. I saw other bikers taking mini-breaks in the shade along the road -- and figured out that such 2-3 minute breaks standing, drinking, eating helped.

Finally made it back to the top of Ebbetts, and knew the downhill would be beautiful. I just didn't appreciate how beautiful. Truly memorable.

Not as hot, and a long winding scenic road down, but with many, many 'switchbacks' requiring serious slowdowns. When you first see signs in red, that say, in sequence Slow then Slower then Slowest -- you get the picture real fast. (In fact, the next day I drove back home via Ebbetts and met a Sheriff who was driving and then hiking around the bends -- just to make sure he didn't see any bikers who might have flown off the road the day prior. Seriously.)

However, as I neared the flats but still on a slight downhill, my left hamstring started up with incredibly painful spasms. I couldn't get off or even get my foot out of the clip. Never ever experienced anything like this before. I'd been hydrating, taking salt pills...but the temperatures, by then over 11,000 feet of climbing and the 80+ miles had taken its toll. Given I was slowly coasting (fortunately), I forced myself to try rotating the legs in cycling motion, and by the 3rd or 4th painful rotation, it helped -- and the pain subsided. (I'd guess like 'stretching' -- somewhat alien to my training regiment).  Way lucky -- and grateful.

At this point, I knew the lunch stop was just up ahead, and 4-5 miles past that was my parked car where I had started. Given I had cool drinks in an ice chest in the car and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches stashed (in case I chose to skip the lunch and save some time), I decided to head for the car. 

Time was ticking away. I wasn't sure if I could make the next 2 cutoffs for the 5th mountain summit (8,580 feet, the 'Kit Carson Pass'), whether my legs would hold -- and ditto for my willpower. 

I was being put to the test.

My feet also were burning by then from the distance and the heat, and as I was biking to the car, I imagined pulling out the ice chest and dunking my feet for relief. I also wasn't sure that if I did so, if I'd ever put the shoes back on (given I'd be at the car already, you get the picture)...so I never did act out my feet-soaking reverie.

Once back at the car I gingerly got off the bike (around the 85 mile point), inhaled a bottle of ice cold chocolate milk, then a bottle of ice cold water, then a bottle of ice cold Snapple -- which helped. I munched on my English muffin and peanut butter & jam sandwich....but time was wasting. I unloaded the extra weight from clothing I had packed on the bike for the rain, hail or snow that sometimes hits the passes when thunderstorms come through (as predicted on race day) to lighten my load (though I did add an extra spare tube that I hadn't taken).

I checked my watch and was confident I had time to make the next cutoff if I didn't stay long (about 12 miles away), but the 5th ascent was the unknown. If I missed the last cutoff, I couldn't make the ascent and finish the Death Ride. So off I went, in less than 10 minutes. I made the next-to-last cutoff with time to spare...but at a 'painfully' slow pace. 

In prior years, if you made the last cutoff, you were golden. Rest, take all the time you want, then head up to the last peak. No longer. I arrived just 15 minutes prior to the last 5:15 pm cutoff -- that I even got there prior was super! Felt great. I had made it. Now for some rest and replenishment

But within minutes, officials were already asking all riders to get going -- as they wanted the Rest Stop cleared of all bikers -- so that all others arriving after 5:15 could easily be turned back.

So 5 minutes later, off I went, now past 100 miles, and climbing Carson and climbing Carson and climbing Carson. Unlike the other 4 summits where the roads were closed to traffic, that was not the case with the ascent and descent of Carson. Crummy road surface and traffic.

At one of my mini-rests, probably 5 miles from the summit, another biker was waiting for a support pickup, as he had fallen and broken his wrist. No fun. He had made it almost to the end, but could no longer work his gears.

Finally, the end was nearing...hopefully. At that point, anyone passing became a target for my 'chatter' to divert thinking of my fatigue, and I 'met' several riders on the way up the last miles. Anything to keep going. Now, no longer worrying about a time cut-off or another flat (given I had a spare). Just keep going, but easier said then done.

The last mile of the climb is mostly visible....There's a good side and a bad side to that (e.g. 'No way?') But I continued until the summit and finally crossed the 'Finish' line, where they rang cow bells as you arrived, checked me in and put the 5th and last sticker for the 5th completed pass on my race bib -- and handed me my finisher's pin and an ice cream sandwich (part of the Death Ride tradition). 

While still on on the Carson summit, I signed the official huge poster of the 2012 Death Ride (along with the some 2,500 other prior and yet-to-arrive finishers) that will hang in the Markleeville City Hall.
Though I knew I'd make the 19 miles back to the car (mostly downhill), at the end, there are 3 miles rolling of hills. I somehow kept seeing 'my' car parked along the rode, over and over again.

Finally I arrived at the actual 'my' car, s-l-o-w-l-y got off the bike, hit the ice chest for more drinks...and took my sweet old time changing clothes. A very humbling day!

This year's 2012 Death Ride poster is above -- and also the finisher's pin.

15,900 feet of climbing, 129 miles, nearly 13 hours on the bike and 15 hours (including rests, tire repairs, etc.) from start to finish.

From a long-time runner and biker friend, now a college professor (who years ago did the Death Ride): 'You old [edited]...you got guts and commitment that I don't think can be taught.'  Nice.

Glad for the experience. Glad I could still walk the day afterward. Glad it's done.

What's Next
How about jumping off a boat at Alcatraz island and swimming across the bay to San Francisco (1.5 miles), with the winds and currents heading out under the Golden Gate Bridge? The Alcatraz Invitational Swim. Are you kidding?

Nihil temptatum, nihil adeptum. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

10 months to go in this 65th year. Now back to early morning runs and many pool yards of swimming.

More adventure stories of the 'Events' promised.

Do add your comments, click to follow the blog, post/like on social networks, help spread the word.

And more importantly, remember that being fit at all ages is a choice we can all make (and should) for ourselves and families.

Thanks for your good wishes, shared laughs and support.

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  1. Eric, you are amazing. I had to take two rest breaks just to read your blog entry. :-)

    Congrats on your accomplishment and all the best with your future adventures.

  2. That is awesome Eric...you make me feel a little lazy really.

  3. Great job Eric! Next off to Alcatraz? That should be pretty cool!

  4. Well done! I love the descriptions of how you had to keep fighting!