Wednesday, October 5, 2011

2010 Furnace Creek 508 - Rock Rabbit's Fixed Gear Report

It wasn’t supposed to be so hard. After my struggles in the Hoodoo the month prior, I figured that the 508, even fixed, couldn’t be too bad. In the Hoodoo I had already dragged myself, unsupported, over a 10,000 foot pass in the middle of the night, vomiting, unable to hold down food or water. I had recovered, and found a raging headwind through the entirety of the “easy” mid section of the course.  Then another massive climb to over 10,000 ft, and a final internal battle as I finished in the early hours of the morning, my grasp on reality beginning to succumb to extreme fatigue.

The 508 couldn’t be this bad the second time around: I would have the luxury of a crew, the climbs were mostly gentler and at lower elevation, and I knew the course. Having only one gear, and no aero equipment would slow me down, but perhaps also liberate me from the competitive pressure to push my pace beyond my abilities.  I felt ready this time, with a (perhaps unfounded) confidence that this time I would do things right. I was wrong.

Death Valley, the desert,  the 508 course, all demanded more respect than I had given them. I dragged myself to the finish, with the help and guidance of my crew, but yet again my knowledge and experience of the meaning of difficult, of epic, was recast. At the finish, I was again left trying to salvage feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction out of what was really only survival in the midst of a complete breakdown.  The 508 and Hoodoo, both within about a month,  both extraordinary sufferfests,  left me utterly drained and exhausted.  I wanted to write about my experience, but put it on the back burner, struggling with how I wanted to express it. I’m now finishing this report a year later, only days away from the following 508,  and while some of the details have faded, the essence of the experience is still fresh and vital in my mind. I tried here to capture the kernels of memory that define this ride for me. My recollections center around my own experiences, from the narrow visibility of my saddle (and occasionally, the side of the road.) While they might not get enough mention below, my crew was an essential component of my success here, keeping me going through extremely difficult circumstances for everyone, all the way to the end. Thank you, Jordan, Anabelle, Bal!

Towne Pass. Mile 200. Dark.

Walking. 3 miles an hour. Ok, at least I’m still moving. My pedals periodically jam into my calves, punishing my awkward gait, kicking me for not being on the bike.  A moonlit stroll.  Brilliant stars. In the middle of an epic race.  Surreal.  Wrong.

The plummet had happened so suddenly. I was at the bottom of Towne, in the center of the pack, the middle of a procession of lights marking the road ahead and behind. I had recovered from my earlier slump, and thought I was feeling great. Here the route turned right and up toward the pass, then beyond to Death Valley.  Riders were stopping here, steeling themselves for the climb. I pushed ahead, almost giddy to start climbing, to destroy Towne with my one gear. A mile up and my confidence was waning.  My legs were empty, the distressed fibers barely firing, and willpower alone was hardly enough to torque the pedals around, one agonizing revolution every 3 seconds, up the 10% grade.  

OK, stop, switch to running shoes. This section was going to be on foot.  I had known this might be necessary. But not so soon. I could barely handle extended 10% grades on the fixie when fresh, but I was 200 miles in now, and in trouble. The change in position as I laced up my shoes churned my stomach. I tried to ignore it and jumped up, pushing my bike up the grade. I made it a few minutes, as all energy drained out of my legs. Stop again. The vomit came forcefully, and I retched pathetically, lying on a camping pad beside the road,  struggling to will myself to get back up.  Pitch black, moving painstakingly slowly. Various riders passed. For a second year, the race was passing me by on the slopes of Towne. This was a long climb, much longer on foot. I tried to convince myself it was ok, to keep upbeat. I was recovering, I would be able to spin down, and get stronger through the night, as I pushed on through Death Valley.  Near the top, the climb is finally back to reasonable grades. Cycling shoes back on. Back on the bike. Eat a little. Pass by the top of Towne, not stopping this time. 5,000 feet down, legs like manic pistons,  300 miles to go.  

Back on the bike near the top of Towne. Death Valley awaits.

Death Valley

The valley floor arrived none too soon. Bright reflective signs announce Stovepipe Wells, but the town was behind me before I notice it had passed. It felt warm. The moon was out. There was an eeriness to the night air. The wind was nothing like the maelstrom of the year before, but was still a nuisance, pushing against me as I battled my way south, around the curves and undulations of the tortured path out of the valley. And so the night progressed.  The grinding monotony of my slow journey through the dark desert was only occasionally broken - a nosebleed in the dry air, catching and passing a few riders, a handful of crackers. A brief respite at the Furnace Creek time station, still almost 50 miles from the climb out, and back on the road. 2:30 AM is a tough time, the body begging for sleep, the muscles aching from the hours and miles before, the mind dulled and a bit dazed, the world slowly pulling away, quiet and black.

Death Valley - The Climb Out

The valley is long, and seems even longer. I knew the road too well to fool myself. My stomach was not happy. I had been taking in decent amounts of food, calories, fluids. But something wasn’t quite right. My legs were weak, and the going was slow. I passed a few riders, but it was a death march out of the valley. The previous year I was fighting my way south through ridiculously strong headwinds at single digit speeds. But I felt great then, tackling epic conditions with a newfound strength from recovering from a near DNF. This time it was different. I knew all too well what was ahead of me, and I didn’t feel  particularly up for it. But I would need to suffer through it. Believing in the accomplishment instills meaning to the pain. I didn’t have energy for that, so I would just grind on.

Three hours of this unremarkable drudgery, and the sky was finally beginning to show some color. The sun was rising, but it wouldn’t peek over the towering mountains to the west for another few hours. Here at the base of the 3500 ft climb out of the valley, my souring stomach and growing fatigue became too much for me to overcome. I stopped, planning to sleep a little bit, and start fresh, recovered and ready to tackle the 200 odd miles left between me and Twentynine Palms. I stumbled forward as I dismounted, my legs absurdly sore, and as I sat down in the passenger seat, knew I was going to be sick. Painfully sick, in violent heaves. From the looks of it, most all of my chosen nutrition for my trip through Death Valley was staring back at me from the sandy shoulder. Great. Stomach exhausted and cramping, but finally rid of its aggravating contents. It had taken eight hours to drag  myself and my fixed gear from this camping pad on the side of the road of the climb into Death Valley, to the same wretched position on the climb out of Death Valley. I closed my eyes. I must have gained a few minutes of precious sleep, in between sips of lemon water and muscle massage from Anabelle, and increasingly impatient urgings from Bal to get the hell up.

Dawn breaks in Death Valley. Get back on the bike.

After almost an hour, I began the slow and uneasy process of dragging myself to my feet, mounting my bike, and rolling again. The longer the stop, the more painful the start. My legs were wooden and my stomach fragile, but my morale was on the rise. The morning was here, it was time to ride. With a wonderful lemon honey and water mixture in my bottles, I embarked on the monster climb to higher ground. The climb up Jubilee and Salisberry Passes averages a mild 5%, but for 15 miles. And in my weakened state and high gearing, that meant a gruelingly slow cadence of 35, or almost 2 seconds per pedal revolution.  I strained against the pedals, recruiting every enervated muscle fiber I could, in a tense struggle to keep moving. The difficulty of the climb brought me back into my element; I was a little happier with each painful, agonizingly slow mile. I felt once again what I had been missing since Towne...a reason to be doing this. Challenge. Overcoming it. Knocked down twice, reduced to puking on the ground, just to get up again, and push a stupidly big gear up this climb. Yes. I am doing this. I want to be doing this. 

The Escape from Death Valley

The beginning - San Francisquito Canyon

Santa Clarita. 7 AM.  The race is off with the usual casual banter at the start line, words by eventmaster Chris Kostman ( don’t think about the 500 miles ahead of you, the 30,000 feet of climbing, the wind, the heat...)  and a police escort out of town.

We reach the left turn marking the end of the neutral section, the pleasantries are over, and we’re heading up. The race is now strictly no drafting, but just as last year, no one wants to separate.  Annoying.  I try to keep it easy, to stay alone, but am still swarmed by draggers on. At one of the steeper rises I foolishly take off, wasting energy in order to get some separation. My gap thankfully sticks. I try to keep it sensible from here on, focusing on smooth pedal strokes, standing up and torquing the pedals when the grade stiffens, sitting and spinning out the tension on the flatter sections. The first summit finally comes, marked by one last, painfully steep section. I clench my teeth and power up it.

Rolling over the top of a climb on a fixed gear is a different experience - gone is the relaxing, enjoyable descent of a geared bike, the chance to rest the legs, catch your breath, enjoy the speed. Instead, the ceaseless spinning of leg, wheel, and crank seamlessly shifts from the grind of the uphill to the crazed dance of the downhill. I had trained extensively on my fixie, and had managed to improve my fixed descents, and limit the toll of the extremely high forced cadences of 150+ on my body. But still, the fixed gear descents offer little recovery to a body weary from the previous climb.

Then the right turn onto Johnson Dr, and the first crew meetup - the road here is lined with support crew, all cheering, and passing by them all  is exhilerating.  My crew were waiting near the end of the line, with a fresh bottle and some fruit, and I grabbed them as I passed. 25 miles down. The route then dropped quickly off the ridge into the vast desolation that is the Mojave desert, where we would trace a giant horseshoe across the expanse of rock and sand. 483 miles to go.

The Mojave, Day 1

I can’t find a pace slow enough to calm my anxious body. My heart rate is too fast. I nervously think back to 2009. Is this slow motion downfall happening again? I can’t let it. With minimal effort on the pedals I try to ease myself through the desert. It’s interesting to be in the middle of all the riders. I convince myself that I’m in my own race, that it doesn’t matter I thought I was faster. But still, no matter how easy I go, I can’t stop my heart rate from beating too fast. 

The beginning of the Windmill climb

This long daytime section into Trona is only a prelude. The true tests lie ahead. The desert is there, all around, a force pulling at you, weakening you for the trials that begin at Towne. It was doing just that.  I was in survival mode, far too soon.

Struggling in the desert

I stopped turning the pedals for the first time at 130 miles. 15 minutes of rest and muscle massage.  But the heart rate is still unsettled. The stomach, uneasy. There was only one thing to do. Deny the impending disaster. Keep going. 

Panamint Valley, approaching Towne. 

Into Baker

The road stretched far into the distance under the bright desert sun, mocking me. It was hot, nearing 100. It was windy, an oppressive and steady south wind, with occasional strong gusts.  I toiled on in my slow cadence, and my gaze followed the road to the base of the mountains ahead, miles away. There it curved slightly to the left to skirt the terrain. It was 35 miles south to Baker, and the sun was high in the sky. I knew I had little hope of any reprieve from either the wind or the heat. It would been have been calmer and cooler earlier; only further punishment for my earlier difficulties.

Time, like the miles, ticked by at a lumbering pace. I was weak: from near no sleep, from well over 24 hours on the bike, from vomiting, first on Towne, then on the exit from Death Valley. From the ceaseless demands of my fixed gear, which never allows a moment’s break: the torque and strain of an overgeared uphill, the frantic spinning of an undergeared downhill, and the lack of flexibilty even on the flats. I was at 12 mph, cadence in the 50s, overheating. My confidence was flagging.

I had overcome my troubles on Towne, and pushed on through Death Valley, through the night and into the morning. I had another low before the large climbs of Jubilee and Salisberry, but I had fought through the pain and fatigue to muscle up the 15 mile climb. Now here I was, in a situation just as trying, but now I was weak, laid bare in my suffering. I had little left to give, and the prospect of what lay before me was despairing. At my speed, I had hours of this until Baker. I felt pathetic. I didn’t want this. Desire is absolutely essential at times like this, and I was losing it.

It was here that my crew pulled up alongside me. Anabelle handed a bottle out the window - I could hear the ice cubes clinking inside.  “It’s ice water...pour it on yourself!” OK... I dumped half the bottle on my neck and back. It was heavenly. My core temp wavered a fraction, and I was jolted out of my negativity.  I chewed on the remaining ice cubes in the bottle, downed the water and handed it back. More please.

So we progressed - into the raging wind, the nondescript desert scenery, the unforgiving sun. We had ice, water and gatorade. Just by looking, there was no hint of progress. The miles counted down on my Garmin agonizingly slowly. I tried not to look. I took the bottles handed me, emptied them, returned them. The crew cheered. We had found a rhythm; the physical task itself was little easier, but once again I wanted to be there, I felt like I was accomplishing something, like this difficulty meant something. And that made all the difference.

After hours of our routine the desolation finally gave way to a ramshackle collection of restaurants, gas stations, and budget motels around I-15. Baker. What a welcome sight. We had staved off the heat until now but I needed to cool down. I eyed the AMPM across the main drag. The entrance had two sets of sliding doors with an entryway in between where AC was blasting. I stumbled in and planted myself on the floor, the wonderfully frigid air wrapping around me. Almost giddy, I smiled to myself at what I had just accomplished. For the second year in a row, I was m
uch, much slower than I had expected, performing nowhere near what I knew I was capable of. But still I had done something. The last three hours had been some of the hardest hours I had ever endured. And I was still here. I was going to finish. Regardless of my finish time, this would mean something. My desire was back.

As I was basking in the wondrous cool, letting my core temp fall, and readying myself for the remainder of my task, Willy “Long Eared Jerboa” Nevin came in and sat himself on the floor opposite me. It was great to see him at this point. The previous year, he had given me advice on my first 24 hour race. He was one of the many who had dropped out amid the windstorm of the ‘09 508, but was resolved this time. We were only 200k from the finish. I thought back a year. For me, without a question, this had been harder than 2009. I had worked for every mile this year. No aero gear. No coasting. No sensible gearing. I realized now how much a difference it made. The 15 minutes in the AC had left me feeling refreshed, ready to go. My crew had grabbed ice, water, frozen goodies, and we were rolling again. I dismissed the 380 miles in my legs, I was a new rider. From here on out, no problem?

Leaving Baker refreshed, on Kelbaker Road

Kelso Climb

Leaving Kelso

The second dusk was upon us. The air above Kelso was crisp, in the sky an intense sunset, framing the surrounding granite mountains and high desert in dark blues and bright oranges. There were thunderstorms in the distance behind us, but I had my eyes ahead. I was feeling almost drunk with fatigue. My legs were still below me, making slow, tense circles, but I felt detached from them - from the sensations of the climb, from their sore exhaustion. The crew ambled behind me, Bal never quite keeping a straight line, occasionally faltering into the dirt or falling too far back. Maybe I was setting the example. It didn’t matter. What a moment. We had already been through so much. Nothing was going to stop us from finishing. I motioned for them to pull aside me and gushed forth. “I love you guys. This is so awesome. Thank you so much. But I can feel that I’m losing it... just wanted to let you guys know. This may get difficult.” 

The sun sets above Kelso. It gets harder. 

And my world began to shrink as the day slipped away, limited to the rough pavement in the headlights, the side of the road, and whatever my mind filled in to the dark boundaries. As the grade stiffened, I filled in pine trees bordering the road, and I was riding in the Sierras. I wondered briefly how I got there before I startled back to reality.  My perception of time was failing me - the climb seemed like it should have been over long ago. My crew had lost track of miles and didn’t know either. I tried counting - my gearing is 262 pedal revolutions per mile. One...two...three... at a cadence of 30, I realized this game wasn’t going to help.  I  relaxed and simply accepted the pace, not fighting my gear, or the mountain, but instead just gently rolling up it. And after ages we were at the top.

The crew needed to switch batteries on the amber lights, and I wolfed down some remaining fruit salad. We were soon back moving, tackling the 25 mile descent as fast as I could muster. After hours of too slow, my cadence was now far too fast, and I relaxed my legs and tried to let gravity fling them around in circles, squirming to get comfortable on my saddle, sneaking quick half-stands, shuffling my numbing hands on the bars. The interminable descent that is a welcome treat to all geared riders was a complete chore to me - but after many false hopes and misinterpreted light clusters, the real Amboy time station finally came into view. The staffers were cheerful, enthusiastic about the Hawaiian theme of the control, and lamented that we didn’t want to stay and chat. I was not in the mood for “getting lei’d” jokes...I downed the pineapple juice they handed me, and motioned to my crew that we needed to keep going. It was 9 pm and I should be finishing now.  But, ashamedly, my job was far from done. The finish line, and my hotel room, were still 55 grueling miles in the distance.

To the Finish

Onwards to Amboy... The road was familiar to me, both from training and the previous 508, but I didn’t recognize it in the dark. I was falling again into an uneasy confusion, and was worried that I would miss the upcoming left turn. I passed the iconic Roy’s motel and cafe in the dark without noticing.  I was too fatigued to realize anything but my confusion. My tenuous grip on consciousness was soon to be lost.

The turn came, and we crossed the railroad tracks onto Amboy Road - which would take us most of the remaining 50 miles to the finish. The two bright lights behind me were alien, sinister, following me with an unblinking stare and the faint purr of an undertaxed engine.  The dark shrouded the sand, the mineral flats, the wastelands we were passing unseen, with an even deeper nothing. In this unbounded emptiness my mind began to unload all the doubts, anxieties, suffering, frustration, fatigue and emotion of the previous day and a half. But my pedals kept turning, in weary, unceasing circles.

Voices were talking at me in the darkness. The vehicle had come along side me. They were familiar, but I couldn’t quite place them. My very existence now seemed a mystery. What am I doing. How did I get here.  It was terribly frustrating. I got my answers. Oh. Right, the 508. I need to finish. Twentynine Palms. Yeah. But wait. A minute later it was gone - a fleeting epiphany. The road was climbing now, I was torquing the pedals. Standing up. Moving very slowly. Am I on my right bike? The words came out of my mouth. My faceless companions next to me in the dark didn’t quite know how to answer.  I had the foreboding feeling that something was wrong. I was in the middle of something huge that I didn’t understand, and I could be doing something wrong that would ruin it all. Something to do with my bike. It was special, it was different? I started a race, ages ago. I was here now riding in a quiet blackness. How does this make sense. I don’t understand what I’m doing.

My crew answered patiently. You’re on the right bike. It’s a fixed gear. You’re on the last major climb of the 508. Sheephole. Keep riding. You’ve been riding since yesterday morning. You’re going to finish. OK. Right. What's your totem?? Rock..Rabbit. That's right! Wait. No...what was I doing? But how did I get here? The answers weren’t sticking. But I was trying.  I’m on my bike. You’re the crew. You’re in the car. I have to keep going this way. This would be repeated many times as I slowly made my way toward the finish. Cresting sheephole, down the last descent, up the painful last 20 miles of headwind and gentle uphill. I was detached from reality, but also from any suffering that may have been left in me. It was a dream, but too vague to be a nightmare. I kept moving, at a glacial pace. I had no conception of competition anymore. My memories are only of the brief flashes of recognition amidst the confusion: the left turn onto Utah Trails. The last right onto the highway. The appearance of lights.  Businesses. Other cars. Twentynine Palms. Some final hills. The fluorescent arches of the Best Western. The end.

As I rolled onto the driveway of the Best Western and crossed the finish, the bright lights and  handful of people cheering snapped me out of my madness. I was here. I was supposed to feel something. But I couldn’t - I knew now what was happening, but it was as if I was only observing.  Why did the achievement seem so empty? My crew parked, got out, and ran over. I hugged Anabelle. We had made it. Chris Kostman was there with a jersey, a medal, and a camera. Pictures with my fixed gear. Pictures with my awesome crew. Then off to our motel room. Haggard, fatigued, and 15 pounds lighter than at the start line, a 42 hour eternity before, I collapsed into bed. I drifted into a deep, content sleep. I was done.

The crew that made it all possible. Jordan, Anabelle and Bal

Monday, May 16, 2011

Devil Mountain Double 2011

I have history with the Devil Mountain Double. In 2009, after dragging myself over the 50 miles of Hamilton and Sierra with debilitating, excruciating leg cramps, I quit at Sunol, and ended up taking a trip to the hospital. In 2005 and 2006, I did reasonably well, finishing in 14:19 and then 13:10, but still had major difficulties on the crux climbs of Hamilton and Sierra. I knew I could do better. This year I came into the ride well prepared with distance - including an extremely windy Death Valley Double on the tandem, 3 400Ks, and 2 600Ks in the preceding 2 months. These long rides were just the training I needed to address my weaknesses. Physically, they helped train my stomach to keep processing at higher intensities, and develop the leg muscle endurance required to put out a baseline of power over long periods. They also sharpened me mentally; a 200 mile ride is not nearly as imposing as it once was - and the major climbs and difficulties along the way are much easier to simply take in stride and tackle as the come.

The terrain is extremely difficult, but perfect for a double - scenic, predominantly remote, few traffic lights or stop signs. Fremont in the East Bay was where I cut my cycling teeth - so the prominent DMD landmarks - Diablo, Hamilton, Sierra Road, Calaveras, Palomares, I knew very well, having ridden them countless times. Stringing them all together in one massive ride has always held a special significance to me, from back when I first started considering attempting these “double centuries”, marvelling at the idea that anyone could even accomplish it.

So it was an easy decision to drive up this year and give it another shot. I had some lingering knee pain from the OC 600k and Temecula 600k at the beginning of April, but this seemed to be mostly healed. Regrettably, nearly all of my recent training had been on the weekends - but I had made the most of them with a series of long brevets. Bal Singh, a friend from the UCSD cycling team, burgeoning ultracyclist, and 2010 Rock Rabbit 508 crew member would be coming as well, taking on the DMD as his first double.

After a very windy drive from San Diego to my parent’s house in Fremont, and a runin with a massive tumbleweed on I-5, we had an afternoon spin to open up the legs and fine tune the bike setup, and an early bedtime.

4 AM wakeup. Grabbed some bananas, and some coffee, we threw our bikes on the car, and headed to San Ramon. We checked in and were back at the car with plenty of time until the 6 AM start. Tires inflated, chain lubed, brakes not rubbing. Numbers pinned, sunscreen applied. There was a quick deliberation about what to wear - it would be windy and maybe dip into the 30s on the summit of Diablo, but would quickly warm up for the rest of the day. So knee warmers were out. Thin long fingered glove liners and arm warmers would be my only extras. A few minutes of cold was well worth not having to lug around extra clothing all day. There was time left for another trip to the bathroom, and then the start area.

The ride director Scott had us take a moment of silence to honor Jim Swarzman, who was killed in the Temecula 600k I had ridden just 3 weeks prior, and Tom Parkes, who had a heart attack on the backside of Hamilton on the 2010 DMD. I had been thinking about Jim quite a bit since the event - Jim’s death was such a terrible and senseless blow; the community lost a great man and cyclist. I had passed through on the same road just a few hours before. It was a sobering reminder of the dangers of our sport, and the need for everyone to be vigilant in the furtherance of cyclist’s rights, and to ride as safely as possible. It was a meaningful and somber moment.

Soon after we were off toward Mt. Diablo into the blustery early morning, at a slower pace than usual. There was a large (230+ rider), strong field, including Marc Moons and Robert Choi, who have been duking out the stage race in recent years, and Nathan Parks, a strong Cat 1 road racer, who along with Kevin Metcalfe had dropped me mercilessly as I struggled up the backside of Hamilton in ‘06. Also in the field were three fellow 2010 Hoodoo Voyagers: Rick Jacobson, Chris O’Keefe, and Russell Stevens, and some 508 veterans.

After the leisurely spin to the base of Diablo, I moved to the front so I could pick my way through the awful potholed road at the base, and we were soon headed up the slopes of the first 10 mi, 3,000 foot climb. Some riders surged ahead, but the pace predictably soon slowed to the tempo we would hold for the remainder of the climb, and I made myself comfortable near the front. It was a gorgeous morning as we gained altitude, with increasingly expansive views of the East Bay, clear blue sky, and a cool, gusting wind. I began to worry a bit about my wheel choice - I had a deep 808 on the front and a 404 on back, a reverse 606 (which I dubbed..the 606..) which people typically wouldn’t ride because of high side force on the front wheel. In clinchers, they were also fairly heavy, but I still thought it was a better idea than the few riders I saw pressing their luck with tubies. The wind grabbed and tugged at my wheels on the exposed sections, but it was manageable. I talked some with Curtis and Rick about the Hoodoo, the 508, Jim, but the climb was largely focused and silent. Before too long we were attacking the last ramp to the summit. Those of us in the front yelled our numbers to the staffers, pulled a U and headed down the mountain. We had climbed Diablo in a near identical pace to ‘09, a hair over an hour from the Athenian School, at a little under 4 W/kg. I felt good throughout the climb. The ride was looking good.

I had worried about being cold on the descent, and apparently it was indeed in the 30s at the top, but I didn’t notice that as I sped down the upper switchbacks. I realized I had not descended in windy conditions with these wheels, and I was having a hard time taking aggressive lines on the tight switchbacks. I could tell I was going slow. Bal passed me, and quickly gained, latching on to Marc ahead. Nathan passed me later on, along with a few others. I felt sluggish on the descent, but saw no reason to push my speed, knowing I would catch on by the bottom.

Sure enough, due to required slowdowns to pass 5 am riders also on the way down, the group came together before the bottom, and in a large group of maybe 15 or 20 we rolled through the streets of Walnut Creek and Clayton. It was a pleasant trip to the base of the next climb. The surrounding hills, verdant and lush from the recent rains, were framed in a warm glow from the morning sun as we rolled through. We hit mostly green lights for an easy trip to the right turn that marked the start of the stair stepped, rough road climb of Morgan Territories.

A Capo-kit clad rider had jumped to the front earlier to set pace. I didn’t catch his name, and only heard him mention that he was headed only to the next rest stop, and that he’d like to get a good workout in. No one objected to his pace-setting up front, and so we made our way over the shoulder of Diablo on the pothole strewn, narrow, tree-sheltered Morgan Territory Road. In ‘09 we had attacked the climb, shelling riders and wasting energy with an uneven pace. Having our buddy out front keeping us civil and sane slowed us down a few minutes, but saved some energy and stress on the body for the many taxing climbs ahead. We passed by the bulk of the 5 AM riders on this section, most wondering aloud cheerfully “Oh, is it the 6AM group? Hi!”
The road breaks through the forest onto a grassy hillside in a final series of steep ramps, and we hooked left into a dirt parking lot for the rest stop. I rolled in at the front of the pack, filled my bottles, grabbed some PB+J squares and fruit amidst the throng of riders, and headed back to the road. I saw Robert Choi just coming in, and began spinning toward the upcoming fast descent as I waited for the rest of our group. Nathan came, then Bal, and Marc. We started down the steep, fast descent known as “The Plunge” toward Livermore, 1500 feet below.

The winds were swirling and gusting, pushing at my deep wheels and threatening to throw my bike, and there were occasional cars and slower riders, so I took the narrow, corkscrewing, exposed descent cautiously. I found out later that a rider crashed on the descent and had to be taken to the hospital. No need to take such risks. Bal, Marc and Nathan passed me again on the descent; but I was just not feeling confident handling my deep wheels any faster. Bruno and Max Mehech, a father and son pair, attempted passing me somewhat recklessly on a curve, while I was slowing for a rider ahead. As I watched them pull away, I thought back to the reasons I quit USCF racing - I don’t like those kind of risks or challenges. At least I wasn’t descending this in a road race - so there was no reason to push my luck. I still managed to average near 35 mph for the 5 mile section, and caught quickly back on to the small group in the flat runoff.

It was then a small group of us, Bal, Nathan, Marc, Max, Bruno, and I, and we formed a rotating paceline to try to shelter ourselves from the strong head and cross winds on the way to the Altamont. As we battled our way eastward with quick short pulls, I’m sure none of us were wondering why the hilly landscape is so liberally peppered with windmills. In this section we were joined by Curtis from behind, and caught up to Alan, who had blown through the Morgan rest stop. At one point we joined the course of the Wente Road Race, being held simultaneously, but only came across a few stragglers, no pelotons. The wind was certainly more painful for the racers than for us. We also came across some groups of 5 AM riders, who made some valiant efforts to integrate to our paceline.

Before long the route turned back westward, the steep 1,000 ft Patterson Pass climb between us and the stop at the base of Mines Road. What had been a raging headwind in past years up the climb seemed to be a gentle tailwind on this morning, making the climb much more pleasant. The previous day Bal and I had driven the road at rush hour, and it was a harrowing death trap - a 1.5 lane commuting corridor with trucks barreling through at 60+ mph, with little regard for the oncoming traffic. It was a completely different story on this Saturday morning: an empty road and a cyclist’s paradise, with nothing to contend with but other riders and Patterson’s steep, inconsistent grades. I had been eating consistently, drinking well, and my stomach seemed to be handling the calories without complaint. But my legs had been feeling slightly dead all day. I wondered if I was coming down with something, whether I had some other serious issue brewing, or whether I was just being overly vigilant and worrying too much. The moderate pace we had settled on was working well for me. There was an intermediate water stop at the bottom of the last pitch, dubbed the “Oh-my-God Hill” - that Nathan, Bal, and Marc had stopped at. I was ok on water, and decided to simply spin easy up the climb, taking the extra few seconds for some active recovery. It was nice being able to ease up the climb at a leisurely pace, although you can only go so easy up 15%! Marc and Alan soon joined me. By the top of the climb our small crew had reassembled, minus the the son Bruno, who had earlier been complaining about the pace and had begun to have cramping issues.

Then came a fast descent and some easy flat miles to Mines, where I restocked on water, some soda, PB+J, and a few bananas. We were all in and out quickly. Mines Road begins with a long climb followed by a gradual upstream saunter through the remote valleys of the Hamilton Range, leading eventually in some 40 miles and 2500 vertical feet to the bottom of the brutal climb to the Hamilton summit. On my past DMD efforts, this was always where I began to unwind. The heat picks up here, and now with about 6 hours in the legs, the body begins to rebel against any lapse. Unsustainable pace, poor nutrition or hydration, insufficient training. This road seems to tear at any weakness, ripping it wide open.
We kept a civil pace up the main Mines Road climb. My knee was starting to hurt, but I focused on smoothing out my pedal stroke and it was manageable. We passed Steve Smead, who was toiling up the road on his fixie. His gear was somewhat lower than what I used for the 508, but these climbs were steep, the descents long, and needless to say I was not jealous of his equipment. Although I may someday want to try DMD fixed, I was quite happy at the time with my freehub and 39-27.

We passed mile 100 with a little less than 6 hours in the saddle, and the main climbing over, took to the false flats leading to the Junction at a good clip. The area’s unique ecology and climate is a haven for birders, who were perched on the side of the road in safari vests, cameras and binoculars at the ready. My legs weren’t feeling great, and I kept my pulls measured and even. Bal was starting to drag here and began to gatekeep. I finished a pull, looked back and merged in ahead of him, hoping he would be able to stick on. The other three were looking strong. In ‘09 it was here that my heart rate began rising for the effort, the first warning for the impending collapse on the slopes of Hamilton. This time my heart rate was looking ok, hanging at a high but reasonable 160. My stomach still felt good.

We hit the two half mile pitches that mark the end of the climbing before the Junction at a strong pace over 300W. I was happy at how little my legs complained. On the following descents, again I couldn’t hold the lines that Nathan carved, and ended up gapping Marc as well. I wasted some energy getting us back up to Nathan and Alan, once again feeling stupid for my wheel choice, and surprised at the difference in handling.
We rolled into the junction at about 6:35 elapsed, 10 minutes slower than ‘09, even though I had only spent a few minutes off the bike. Our pace this year had been sustainable for me, and I was feeling confident that I could remain strong for the remainder of the ride. I filled up water, got a Coke, grabbed some food, and used the porta-potty. Alan and I rolled out after a few minutes, with Marc soon following. It turns out Nathan had quietly left a bit earlier. I expected him to drop me on Hamilton, so I almost welcomed that, as I needed to set my own pace at this point. As Alan and I were spinning from the rest stop, we saw Bal headed rapidly toward us, backward on the course - he yelled that he had blown by the stop as he passed us. Bummer. Adding miles is the last thing you want to do on a ride like this.

Alan was surprised that I had driven all the way up from San Diego to ride the DMD. I mentioned how I loved riding in the area, coming back to my hometown. Driving to a ride like this seems a lot more worth it than a long journey to an office park crit in my collegiate racing days. He mentioned that at least someone was enjoying this, because it was really starting to hurt, and he was wondering why he did this. It was just a reminder to me how important keeping a positive mindset is in endurance riding - I do this because I love it - and as long as my fueling and nutrition is going well, it’s easy to stay happy. Alan dropped back as Marc caught up, and we talked a bit on the approach to Hamilton, where he stopped for a nature break at the top of a small climb. I told him I knew I’d see him later on. He said never be so sure, this is really just the beginning of the ride. I thought about that and fully agreed - the 120 miles and 12,000 feet of climbing to this point were really only a sort of prologue, the real separation of riders only began on the slopes ahead. For now I pushed that out of my mind and pressed on, enjoying the fast terrain leading to the base of the climb.

There are large mile markers on the road counting down to the summit, and right around the “7” the fun starts. A mile at 8%. I powered up it, trying to ward off my doubts, my worry at the climbing ahead. Then a brief twisting descent, a bridge river crossing, a mini rest stop (no need to stop here), and I was at the pièce de résistance, the 4 and a half miles of 9% to the top of Hamilton, 2,000 feet above. So quickly the imagined totality of the climb, the big numbers, the memories of bad times past, the fear of a meltdown, fade into the mundane reality of actually getting up the damn thing. The miles, the minutes, the pedal strokes, the world, everything in slow motion. I was crawling,3.5 W/kg, and struggling at that, 7 mph or less on the endless turns on the dry tree-lined hillside, no real visible landmarks to judge forward progress against.

As I slogged up the mountain, I was growing light headed. My legs felt empty and my power was dropping slowly. Nothing to do but concentrate, keep pushing the pedals around, just let the climb happen. Quackcyclist SAG extraordinaire George, who had been tailing our group for much of the day, pulled up alongside me. I didn’t really need anything but to get to the top, but I took some M+Ms and encouragement and got back to work. After 38 minutes of focused, concentrated, pained, effort, I reached the summit with great relief. I hadn’t smoked up the climb, but I hadn’t self destructed. And I had a long descent ahead. Bring it on.

So I attacked the slow, winding descent of the frontside of Hamiton, taking the curves as fast as I could. It still wasn't very fast. I’ve descended this mountain many times, but never gotten much enjoyment out of it. Many of the turns have no good line and poor pavement, it’s hard to get much speed, and the descent is broken up with pesky climbs. But it still offered a welcome respite to the rigors of all the earlier climbing. Midway down the descent, I looked back and Marc had caught back up. I was surprised it had taken him this long, but I let him take the lead and followed his line. We came together into Grant Park, 8 miles from the base, and started up the 1 and a half mile climb over the ridgeline to the last section of descent. Marc dropped his chain and I spun easy for a while, thinking he would be back up soon. After a few minutes, he hadn’t come, and I couldn’t see him behind. I kept going, feeling a bit bad, but sure that I would see him soon.

Soon the climb crested and the fastest, most enjoyable part of the descent led to the right turn onto Crothers Road. On the annoying, steep out and back to the home that serves as the rest stop, I saw Nathan headed back out, and we waved. He was at least 5 minutes ahead. Chapeau, I thought.. I would try, but with Sierra looming I didn’t see bringing him back. For those spending much time at the rest stops, the Crothers stop must be great. For me, the out and back was frustrating, and I much preferred the Grant Park stop location from the 2005 ride. I topped up my fluids, grabbed some food, and headed out just as Marc was arriving. There was one thing on my mind. Sierra Road.

Only 15 minutes later and I was at the base of the 3.5 mile, 9.5%, 1800 foot climb. I know the climb all too well; it has been a centerpiece training climb for me. The steep sections, many well above 10% for long periods, make it very difficult fresh, and simply masochistic after 155 tough miles. My best climb of the road was under 24 minutes. In the Tour of California, the top riders summit in under 19. But on this day, my expectation was more like 40. The one blessing of the ridiculously steep grades is that you as long as you are turning the pedals, you’re putting out decent power. And so I crawled up the familiar grades, speed in the 5s and 6s, not able to able to will my legs to push any harder. Although it was tough, it was comfortable, and I knew exactly where I was, and what I had in store, at all points. This made it far easier to me than Hamilton. I looked back often, surveying the ever expanding view of Silicon Valley, expecting to see Marc at any moment. About 2/3rds in, a flash of green, a beard, long hair, there he was. He passed me, and offered a “great climb.” “You’re a beast” I gasped. I used him as a carrot, trying not to let him shrink too much. And I watched him, a hundred yards ahead, as we toiled to the top. 33 glacial minutes and I was over, traversing the ridgeline, then at the “Pet the Goat” rest stop.

I filled up, grabbed some food, and left, knowing Marc would catch me on the descent. The ride was looking good; all I had to do now was hang on. After the fast, enjoyable descent down Felter Rd, Marc caught me on the steep and short “Calaveras Wall”. We made good time working together on the rollers around the reservoir. Then we traded pulls into Sunol. Marc, still looking as fresh as the morning, took more time than his share at the front. We spent around a minute at Sunol, filled our bottles, and got back on the road, ready to tackle the last 25 mile section and be done with it.

A quick jaunt on the high-traffic, unpleasant Niles Canyon Road, and we were at the penultimate climb of the day, the tame, tree-shaded, riverside climb of Palomares. The climb gains 1100 feet in just under 5 miles, and consists of a few steep sections interspersed with flats, making for the most mellow climb of the ride. Marc and I took it at an easy pace, whiling away the climb chatting about the usual: riding, training, life. And we were up and over, hammering the fast descent and runoff.

On the way through Castro Valley we came across the first series of stop lights in many miles. I was tempted to roll a red at a T intersection - as there was no intersection that broke the bike lane - but Marc asked that we stopped - adding that he never violated lights. I was impressed, and thought of Jim, and all the reminders of how important it is to always ride safely - and to display to other drivers and cyclists that following traffic laws is important, even in situations where it seems “ok”. Soon enough we were on our way and up Crow Canyon road, Marc hammering on the front, me hanging on.

It was only a few miles, but plenty long enough, on the busy, unremarkable Crow Canyon Rd before we came to the final test of the day, Norris Canyon, a steep, short, unwelcome climb over the ridgeline that lay between us and the finish in San Ramon. Marc, apparently unfazed by the 200 miles in his legs, attacked the slope and I followed, with great effort. This hurt. It was only a mile or so of climbing, but he slipped away as I awkwardly muscled my gear around, my head pounding, legs resisting. I had been riding hard since Sierra and was way behind on calories and fluids. Allowing lapses in hydration and fueling are a rookie mistake, but one that requires constant vigilance to avoid. After summiting Sierra I mentally relaxed, slipping on the intake regimen, but continuing to ride hard. Oops.

Marc held up until I caught him again, and mentioned “we rode this far together, we’re finishing together.” He could have dropped me on the climb, and put a minute or two into me by the end. The competition in doubles like this is unique, much more collegial and nowhere near as cutthroat as USCF racing. Sure enough he once again easily pulled away over the top, which finally arrived for me too, accompanied by a wave of relief, and I joined him on the descent as we hammered the remaining miles to the San Ramon Marriott. We finished in 12:18, a time I was very happy with. It had been a pleasure to ride with Marc, and although we came in together, he was clearly the stronger rider in the end. Nathan was the first to finish 15 minutes earlier, and I missed the chance to talk to him. I took some iced sparkling apple juice and went back to the car to change.

My head was reeling and my stomach was shocked by the cold fruit juice. I sat in the car with closed eyes for a few minutes, then retched the past few hours worth out of my stomach. I couldn’t believe it. Or maybe I could. Even on a strong finish, I was still having these issues. At this intensity, even a few hours of inattention could push me over the edge. Mental note taken. I can not let this happen during my long(er) rides. Just a few more bottles of water to balance out the calories and I suspect I would have been ok.

My parents had moved up their flight from Vegas to be able to see me at the end, but I had just beat them to San Ramon, perhaps faster than they expected. It was nice to see them, and I’m sure nicer to them that they weren’t taking me to the hospital as in ‘09. Despite a missed turn, a lost contact, and disturbingly little training, Bal finished in just under 13 hours, a superb showing for his first double. His first 300k and 400k had only been a few months earlier; Honey Badger will be a rider to watch in this year’s 508.

Overall I was very happy with my performance. I had maintained a high intensity, about 3.3 W/kg norm power throughout the entire ride. Although there were several points of difficulty (exactly where I expected), mentally I felt strong and within control at all times. Had I been going longer I would have moderated my effort, but this was perfect training. I ended up with only about 12 minutes of stopped time, which would be difficult to improve on. I would have needed to moderate my effort, especially in the latter hours had I been going long(er), but that is to be expected, and my intensity here was already significantly higher than the ‘09 508, where I performed well, apart from my disastrous meltdown on Towne Pass. My brevet riding earlier in the year paid large dividends here, and I look forward to the coming months of increasing training as I sharpen my distance riding for Hoodoo and the 508.