Sunday, April 18, 2010

Death Valley Double Fixed Gear - Ride Report - 3/6/2010

Before the Ride

My solid 4 hour (over)-training ride now complete, I drove down from Towne pass and headed toward Furnace Creek. I walked out onto the sand dunes by Stovepipe Wells, sat down on top of a tall dune, stretched, and relaxed. My heart rate was still elevated from my earlier effort, but the stark beauty of Death Valley was calming.

Once in Furnace Creek, I checked in at the Ranch, then set myself up in a campground (really a big parking lot with RV hookups) across from the Furnace Creek Ranch. I had last been through Furnace Creek at 3 in the morning during the 508, in the middle of a brutal windstorm, trying to claw myself back into the race. It was decidedly more calm this time around, and the weather reports were now looking better than they had all week, with only a small chance of rain.

I worked on my bike for the morning. Checked the chain tension (finally starting to get a feel for the “art”), made sure the tires were good, bottles ready with fuel, clothes set out. The next day would be my first double century on the fixed gear. In fact, it would also be my second and third centuries on the fixie! I still felt more or less confident in my ability on the bike, and wasn’t too worried, given that the Death Valley Double is among the easiest doubles on the calendar. The climb out of Death Valley over and Jubilee Pass and Salsbury Pass is long, but never too steep, and the climbing is basically complete after mile 80. Seemed like all I would have to do was hang on until that point, and it would be a cruise. 

I tried to get to bed early, curling up in the back of my VW Passat wagon. I didn’t sleep well. I never got comfortable, and I noticed I felt more tired than I would have expected from my effort that day. I was trying to drink water, but it wasn’t enough to hydrate me in the dry Death Valley air.

Furnace Creek to Ashford Mill
I finally woke up around 5 and headed across the road to the start at the Ranch. It always seems to take longer to prepare than you plan for – and I managed to barely make it to the 6 am start. A few words from Chris Kostman of AdventureCorps and we were off. I always love the beginning of long rides. It was a pleasant morning, and we had a faint wind at our backs as we headed south. I talked a bit with George “Red Eyed Vireo” Vargas – who himself has done the 508 on a fixed gear (the 7th, and last successful, finisher). It was probably his account that planted the idea in my subconscious ... long before I was even sure whether I would attempt the 508 solo at all. Graham “Python” Pollock and Ton “Desert Fox” van Daelen were also in the group. I’m not the only 508 veteran to whom Death Valley holds a special importance. 
I often find myself a bit frustrated with the beginnings of doubles, as very few people ever want to work. I ended up taking some long pulls myself, hoping other people would start rotating. It would be many miles before we finally did get a semblance of organization going. Many of the riders still aren’t comfortable with, don’t know, or don’t care, that it’s most efficient to maintain a quickly rotating paceline. But in my impatience to get things moving, I wasn’t paying attention to my body. Judging by my power numbers, I was just fine, and not overextending. But my heart rate was far too high, and something just felt off about my form. I was pulling too long and too hard given my form, and even this early in the ride, it was starting to catch up to me.
We pulled into Ashford Mills after about 2 hours of riding. I thought then about the comparison of the same section on the 508, where I thought it must have taken about twice the time to travel that distance. It did:

Furnace Creek to Ashford Mill - 2009 508
4:03, NP 211, Avg Power 206, HR 139, Avg Speed 11 mph

Furnace Creek to Ashford Mill, 2010 DVD
2:06, NP 239, Avg Power 211, HR 157, Avg Speed 21.2

The first thing to note here is that an average power of 206W during the windstorm of 2009's 508 was good for only 11 mph (over 4 hours!) on this section. On the DVD, in a group, with calm conditions, the slightly higher average power of 211 W (239 normalized because of some spirited pulls) yielded 21.2 mph (just over 2 hours). There couldn't be a starker example of the effects of air resistance.

The other crucial thing here is my body's response. On the 508, I had recovered from my early difficulties, and was in "endurance mode" where I'm able to churn out consistent, mid-range power, with low heart rate, for very long periods of time. So I averaged 133 bpm on this section for the 508, indicating a very sustainable pace. My body on this morning seemed to be revolting, however, and my moderate effort over these first two hours had my heart rate up to 157 average, with spikes up to 189 (!) which, while somewhat sustainable, hinted that something was wrong. Heart rates this high can compromise digestion, and the fact that I was this stressed early on in the ride did not bode well for the remaining 150 miles.

Ashford Mill to Shoshone and Back

Our group had been whittled down to about 6 at this point. A few of them grabbed water from the stop and jumped off before I could refill my bottles. 5 of us were back together after some chasing
, as the road tipped up toward Jubilee Pass. I didn't know quite how to take this climb on the fixed gear, but even at the tame 4-5% grades of the climb, I felt uncomfortable at that low cadence. So I took off. I upped the pace to what would normally be a sub-threshold climbing pace, of about 340w, for the next 5 minutes, but it was clear that I could not keep this up. My HR had shot up to 190 as I hit a flat spot in the climb. I had a sizable gap at this point, but I knew I needed to back off. As I continued up Jubilee, my power kept falling.. 320, 315, 310, but my heart rate kept rising...180, 185, 190.. I was alternating sitting down and standing up, muscling the cranks sloppily, at a forced cadence in the 40s. Phil Kelly caught up to me midway on this stretch, and I could tell he was having no difficulties at this pace. I would expect to feel the same, but was undeniably deep in the pain cave.

I crested the pass with Phil, but he quickly dropped me on the mile-long descent leading to the base of the Salsbury Pass climb. My aching legs were unable to keep a cadence higher than about 120 down the grade, good for only around 28 mph, on what is a 40+mph coasting descent. As the climb resumed, I went from struggling to keep my legs spinning at 120 rpm to wrestling the cranks to keep turning at 40 rpm. This would be a long 9 miles of climbing ahead.

In times of difficulty on the bike, I tend to focus intently on countdowns: feet left to climb, miles to go, time left at this pace. But of course, your mileage ticks ever so slowly when you watch it. I was in survival mode now. Never had I been in this much distress so early in a ride. I tried to put it all out of my mind - concentrate on breathing smoothly, relax your body, even out your pedal stroke.

Nearing a half hour into the climb I finally found some sort of equilibrium at 240W, with my HR hanging at my threshold of 180. This was around 2/3rds the power I would expect at this level of exertion, but I had to take what I could get. I came up on a water stop, halfway up the climb, that I stopped at to get some fresh water. I didn't need it. My fatigued body was just looking for any excuse to stop for a minute. George Vargas passed me at this point, and I was jealous of the effortless cadence he was producing.

Suffering, while Red Eyed Vireo calmly zips up his jersey. Midway up Salsbury Pass.

I got back on the bike after a glorious 45 seconds of no pedaling at the water stop. My legs immediately resumed their complaints. The demands of the high torque required by my gear were accumulating, and for the next 15 minutes, I could only muster 220W, which of course, means that my cadence was even slower, dipping into the low 30s at spots. As I neared the top I was able to push a bit harder, finally reaching 2 miles to go, 1, half a mile to go, then the always wonderful view of a downturn in the road ahead, and the little green rectangular sign marking the summit of the road.

The climbs out of Death Valley during the 508. Easy endurance pace at ~200 watts, HR kept quite low at avg 139 bpm.

The same climb during the DVD - I struggled, averaging 260W (NP 274), but HR averaging 180 for almost an hour an a half. All saving only 13 min versus the 508. Notice the consistently dropping power throughout the climb.

I took a deep breath. The last time I had descended this road it was a joyous, 45 mph freefall, with wide open desolate desert valleys spreading out before me as I rocketed eastward, rewarding me for making it through Death Valley. This time it was no reward. My legs were being jerked around. My butt hurt. I was bouncing around on the too-soft, cheapo saddle that I should have replaced after buying the bike. What was I doing this for? Oh yeah... the "accomplishment." Great.

As I pulled into the checkpoint in the small town of Shoshone, Graham was just heading out. I filled my water bottles with Heed and Perpetuem, spun my wheel to see if I had torqued it out of true (nope, it was ok..) stretched out my aching legs, and returned on the road back to Death Valley.

I was sore. There was a long way to go. I especially wasn't looking forward to the climb back up to the pass, which was steeper (but shorter) in this direction. I kept Graham in sight, and he provided great motivation for me to hold a decent pace. I was feeling ok, but my stomach was a bit unsettled. My flagging energy levels warned me that my calories weren't processing as they should. But I had to keep pressing on. I concentrated on just pushing the pedals through. I stared down at the slowly moving pavement. I looked at all the riders who were coming down the descent, headed toward Shoshone, coasting happily toward the checkpoint.

Graham's figure up the road was shrinking a bit. I tried pushing harder on the pedals. They resisted. As I approached the summit, I felt the beginnings of a bonk, and the road kicked up steeper. I had been averaging about 240 w, with a calmer HR of 168, but my legs were screaming for a shorter gear. My cadence dropped to 30, and I shamefully unclipped and draped myself over the handlebars. I knew I was close to the summit, I needed to get on. But it was too tempting to stop. I gave myself one minute. Back on the bike. I knew I was in trouble: I only have to fight the urge to stop on a climb when my body is on the verge of shutting down. This was bad. I did my best to ignore the sign. What could I do now, anyway? I battled the rest of the half mile up to the summit. Riders were happily taking pictures of each other by the Salsbury Pass sign, as I struggled silently past. I was happy to reach the summit, but I was not looking forward to the 14 miles of descent that lay between me and the valley floor.

My descent was ugly. Jerky. Painful. My hands were half numb as I maintained a death grip on the brakes. My feet were dragging my legs, against their will, in fast circles that they flailingly tried to mimic. My saddle was putting pressure in all the wrong places, as I bounced on it haplessly. Sure, it seemed like a great idea at the time to change as little as possible about the bike, which I bought for only $249. So I didn't swap out the big cushy saddle it came with. It was the whole idea of simplicity, of doing an epic ride on the simplest, cheapest of equipment. Major mistake. This wasn't like foregoing the slight performance advantage of aero wheels or a lighter frame. A properly fitting saddle is a basic bike-fit essential. I was barely topping 26, but it still felt like I was hurdling down the mountain on the edge of control.

20 minutes of this torture later, and I had to make the brief, sharp climb up to Jubilee Pass, and the quick transition from too fast cadence to too slow cadence was jarring. I barely kept the bike upright on the last kicker of well over 10%, at 5 mph, and then made my way painfully down the remaining 5 mile descent to Ashford Mill.

Ashford Mill to Furnace Creek

I pulled into the rest stop, parked my bike, and filled my bottles. There were many other century riders at this point, their turnaround was just up the road at the top of Jubilee. They were relaxed, enjoying the beautiful day. I was a world apart from them. I felt like a zombie. It was only mile 100, but I was toast. The remaining miles were all flat to rolling, so I figured I would be fine. But up until now I had given my body almost no rest - as the stress of the descents on the fixie did not offer any respite. I saddled up and made my way back north, toward Furnace Creek. I didn't make it far before I realized this was going to be tougher than I had been counting on. Everything after this point was supposed to be an easy spin. My exhausted legs, my near-bonked energy levels, the headwind, and the hills, which seemed much more brutal than I had remembered, all claimed otherwise. I once again stopped, dismounted, and sat on my top tube, staring down the road stretching endlessly beyond me.

OK. Now what was I going to do. I sipped my water bottle. I felt a little bloated. My stomach wasn't doing its job. Not good. I wasn't getting calories through, and was bonked. Groups of riders started whizzing past. I saw one of the six riders that had been in our group from the morning pass by, and he slowed, asked if I was ok, congratulating me (undeservedly!) for being on the fixie. I was completely worthless right now, but this gave me enough of a push to jump back on and catch him. The effort wore me out, but I hung out in his draft, and was able to recover a bit.

He ( I believe his name was Glenn) was riding with his wife, who was doing the century route. They were both on Storcks, completely tricked out with top-end weight weenie components. I asked him what his bike weighed, guessing 11 pounds. It was under 10, as he was riding it. His wife's was around 12. Ridiculous. It provided quite the contrast to the 25 pound monstrosity I was wrestling with currently. They were from Tahoe - and apparently this was their first ride of the year outside. Amazing. They offered to pull me back in to Furnace Creek. I graciously obliged. I took pulls when I could, but I was mostly sucking wheel, and watching the miles tick by painfully slowly. 44 long miles. This is psychologically taxing terrain. There is very little to mark your progress against, as the road rolls on relentlessly from one small hill to the next, traversing the east side of the valley.

We stopped at the Badwater rest stop for a good long while. I had given up "racing" way back on the slopes of Salsbury, so I was fine with sitting and relaxing at Badwater for a while. I was still hoping my stomach would start working again, but I still felt its contents sloshing around... threatening to come back up. Once you get situated at a rest stop, time passes very quickly...I ended up spending almost a full half hour there!

The remaining 17 miles back to Furnace Creek were slow, and I still spent most of them hiding in Glenn's draft. My heart rate had calmed down, but I was still nauseous and bloated. We averaged less than 16 on the return trip. Glenn was going to call it a day at FC, as his knee was hurting, and his wife's century ride ended at FC. I toyed with the idea of doing the same. No. Not an option.

Furnace Creek to Stovepipe Wells and Back.

I checked in at the Furnace Creek stop. It was late. Well over 9 hours had passed. Best case, I had imagined finishing in the low 10s. Not today! It was after 3. I had less than 3 hours to finish the remaining 50 miles before I would need lights. That should have been no problem, but I was weak, and it was windy. I rode over to my car, slumped in the seat, and closed my eyes. OK. Get lights. Get back on the road. Just a little bit of rest... I looked at the clock. 15 minutes had passed since I arrived. I needed to get moving. I grabbed the lights I had brought, not intending to use them. I tried flicking them on. They looked a little dim. Great. I needed to move.

I jumped back on my bike and started toiling toward Stovepipe Wells. I had spent over 30 minutes at Furnace Creek. Shouldn't have done that. When you're far enough gone, saving time seems to matter less and less, and when you're stopped, it seems to pass faster and faster. A few miles out from Furnace Creek, a good sized, well moving paceline caught me. Someone yelled "latch on!"

We were moving, over 20 mph, and I could muster brief pulls at the pace, although it hurt. Finally my legs were recovering a bit: we were now at speeds that my gear choice (46x16) is optimized for, as 21 mph gives 90 rpm. My power and speed were now settled in my ultra endurance range - which I think indicates my energy is coming almost entirely from fat burning. This is a NP of 180 or so, HR in the 130s. My stomach was still upset, but I think it was ok, as at this intensity, I depend very little on caloric intake. As long as I maintained reasonable levels of electrolytes and hydration, I'd make it. Still, I dreaded the approach of every hill, of which there are several sizable ones on the stretch, as I had barely any power above what we were averaging, and I had to struggle on the descents to stay with the group.
We saw the leading riders, on their way home, 2 hours ahead. I put my lackluster performance out of my mind, and concentrated on the road ahead.

After an interminable amount of time, I finally saw the Stovepipe Wells sand dunes in the distance, and continued to watch them as they neared. We arrived at Stovepipe Wells, and put on our lights. It was starting to get dark, and threatening clouds were moving in. 25 miles to go. More pacelining, more hills that I was scared of being dropped on (even though certainly no one was hammering them!), more eyeing the mileage left as it dropped ever so slowly. About half an hour left it was time for our lights. My woefully dim front light gave me excuse to hide in the draft for the rest of the ride, as the clouds ahead finally made good on their promise and sprinkled us with intermittent showers. It was all wrapped up now, and I finally could put on a bit of a good attitude. I was going to finish what I came to do: a fixed gear double century.

We finished with little fanfare, a challenging 2 hours and 45 minutes from when I set out from FC, over 12 and a half long hours from when I first departed FC that morning. I checked in, rolled to my car, and struggled to throw my bike in the back as the rain started in earnest. I was done. I had no stomach for the after-ride pizza that was being provided at the finish. As much as I liked the idea, it was far beyond my capability to eat anything. I needed to get back to the motel.

Stats for the first 85 miles, marking the end of the last climb to Salsbury Pass.
246 NP for 5:05, 164 HR
6800 ft of climbing this section

Stats for the last death march of a century. Over an hour off the bike!
Power output of 181 NP (indicating "endurance mode" - fat burning metabolism only)
5:25 moving, 94 miles
138 HR. 2100 ft of climbing.

Full ride, 11:16 rolling, (1:20 off the bike), 196 miles
NP 217, HR 150
8900 ft of climbing


I collapsed in the front seat, and started driving. I didn't feel well. I had over 100 miles to drive to Ridgecrest. All of a sudden, I really didn't feel well. I pulled to the side of the road, and threw up the sum of my liquid intake for the last many hours. Ugh. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and started driving again. Here I was, in the same place, about 3 hours later, heading toward Stovepipe Wells, counting the miles down yet again. Many doubles riders were still on the course. Many of them coming towards me had blindingly bright lights, more distracting than an oncoming motorist with the brights on. Riders should point their lights toward the road, it must be detrimental to safety to be shining lights that bright in driver's eyes. Finally I hit the base of the climb to Towne Pass. I had to stop and throw up again. This time I was empty, heaving in vain. I pressed on. I was about halfway up when I needed to stop again. I lay back and closed my eyes, thinking of the night 5 months ago, when I was also throwing up on Towne Pass. At least this time I didn't have to get out and ride 300 more miles. I slept for about an hour, and finally felt good enough to press on. It was a long 100 miles left to drive, tracing the 508 route backward, over Towne Pass, through the Panamint Valley, then Trona, over the mountains into Ridgecrest, Motel 6, and finally, I was able to surrender to a well deserved deep sleep.

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