Immortality is hard to come by these days, so this weekend, Chris Z., Jesse G. and I set out to find it somewhere in the middle of nowhere, California. Chris and I arrived in Ridgecrest (a town 23 miles from the start) at 8 pm on Friday – it was 97 degrees. This was the first time I was anywhere where it was 97 at 8 pm. I knew then heat would be a factor. I did this ride last year, so I was familiar with the terrain, but it wasn’t nearly as hot. In fact, I don’t believe it ever got above 100.
Last time, I finished the ride in exactly 12 hours, which put me somewhere in the middle of the group of finishers. This year, my goal would be to finish the ride in under 11 hours and hopefully be among the top 10 finishers.
Chris and I got to the start around 5:35 and got ourselves together. We checked out at 5:48 and were on our way (Jesse had started about half an hour earlier).
The ride began, as it always does, at the intersection of Highway 395 and 9-mile Canyon Rd., and the climbing starts virtually immediately. Chris and I rode together for maybe all of 3 minutes, and then he decided to test his legs and promptly dropped me. I, on the other hand, wanted to start slow and let my legs open up. I had two hard and one moderate day on the bike preceding the ride and this would be my fourth day in a row, so I didn’t want to go lactic right out of the gate.
The first climb began mildly and then pitched up, varying between 4 and 8 percent for the first 10 miles. At which point, the climb flattens out and gradually goes to approximately 7200 feet.
As I made one of the bends along the hillside, I looked to the side and marveled at how beautiful the desert looked under the rising sun. While I was still shaded from it by taller mountains, the sun remained my friend, but I knew we would soon battle like the worst enemies.
Around mile seven of 15, I felt my legs open up and I started pushing a little harder. After mile 10, the pitch flattened out and I pressed on even faster. After starting at the desert floor in 80 degrees, it was nice to get to altitude where the temperatures slowly dropped into mid 60s.
At the top of the climb, I estimated that my time this year was about 15 minutes faster than last year – it was actually almost 20 minutes faster – so I knew I was making good progress.
Following the 15-mile climb is an 8-mile descent – this is an out and back course, so this would also be my last real obstacle on the way back – dropping back to 6000 feet. Before plunging down the 8-mile descent, I stopped at the rest stop to fill my bottles and throw a bar in my back pocket. The next 31 miles would be a rolling climb toward Sherman Pass from the east, up to 9200 feet.
I was happy to be at altitude and out of the heat. My Garmin told me that the temperature had subsided and I welcomed the cool wind, knowing it would not last very long. The climbs leading up to Sherman Pass from the east are not very long, and the road surface is considerably better than it was last year, but there was some sand and loose gravel on the road, so it was crucial to be aware of the road conditions especially when descending. I did my best to hug the yellow line on all the downhill portions because that was the only place on the road where I was certain there wasn’t any gravel.
Four and a half hours after I started, I was at mile marker 54, ready to take the plunge over Sherman Pass toward Kern River. First, however, I made a quick stop at the rest stop and made sure I had full bottles of water with ice – I knew very well where I was headed.
As I began to descent, I grabbed a bottle to take a drink and only then saw I was very quickly approaching a cattle guard, so I planted my hand with the water bottle on the handlebars for stability, but the shaking knocked the bottle out of my hand and resulted in a bit of a back track and bottle catch action – better than going over my bars, I think.
Now it was time to take a 15-mile plunge. It took me about half an hour to make it down to 4000 feet, and it felt as if I was put in an oven and the heat was slowly being turned on. A lot of pain and suffering lay ahead. The descent was fast and super technical. There were many 180 degree switchbacks and the road surface was not the best, with many cracks and potholes, so it was key to always look ahead and slow down going into blind corners because even when I was confident I’d be on my own side of the road, I wasn’t sure what that road would look like.
As I approached the bottom of the climb, I saw Jesse beginning to make his way back up, but what concerned me is that I haven’t yet seen Chris anywhere on the ride and was expecting to see him coming back a long time ago. There was only one turn to make on the ride during this whole time, and I was afraid he had missed it.
I had reached Kern River and the sign telling me I was half way there. I have just ridden 69 miles and climbed approximately 10,000 feet (all of that in the first 54 miles), and now I would have to turn around and climb for 15.4 miles, from 4,000 to 9,200 feet, in 107-degree heat. It was now all about survival.
The night before, I had cut out Rocktape strips to put on my left leg to keep my left Achilles tendon happy (it worked as always), and the backside of the tape had interesting inspirational messages on it. Two that came to mind when I did my 180 on Sherman Pass Rd. at Kern River were, “ride until you cry,” and “pain is weakness leaving your body.”
The climb back up to Sherman Pass from Kern River starts mellow for the first four miles, but then pitches up to anywhere between 4 and 9 percent. I knew what my body does in this kind of heat and I knew what I needed to do to survive. If I pressed hard, my body would overheat, I’d get to the verge of heat stroke and would be forced to stop and take minutes of rest to cool off, or worse, get sick and forced to abandon – though knowing myself, I would probably have to be unconscious before giving up. Instead, I dropped my heart rate as low as I possibly could while still maintaining non-wobbling forward motion.
I don’t like heat; my body hates heat. To me, anything above 80 is uncomfortably hot, so 107 was the equivalent of sending me up this climb with a 50lb backpack in normal temperatures. Except that probably wouldn’t be as bad because the sun would not be relentlessly beating me over the head.
Two miles into the climb came the first rest stop and check in point. I stopped briefly, grabbing some food, taking a bio break and filling one of my bottles with ice and Accelerade (for drinking) and the other with ice and water (for drinking and watering myself). I also saw Chris descent past the rest stop. I thought he was behind me because of wrong turn, but it turned out the altitude wasn’t agreeing with him very well and he had simply taken a long break at the second rest stop (something I learned much later). As I left the stop, I was 71 miles into my ride with about 13 minutes of rest time and 13 miles of suffering ahead of me.
And so I went, one pedal stroke over the next; tenth of a mile at a time; realizing it would be at least a couple of hours before I reach Sherman Pass once again. It was time to start bargaining with myself and to keep myself motivated to stay on the bike. The heat was relentless; the air was super dry and super hot. “Just go one more mile and if you can’t turn your pedals, take a minute break,” I told myself. But the mile went and the legs were still turning over, so no stopping. Soon, I heard Chris coming up behind me (as expected) holding a very fast tempo. I handed over my car key, knowing he’ll get back faster, and proceeded to climb.
I would hear another rider approach from behind and pass me pushing a very large gear. I was too exhausted to turn my head, so I just lifted it as the rider went by and all I saw was a lot of grey hair under the helmet – at that very moment I had to reflect on how humbling a sport cycling really is.
Finally, I made it to mile 7.5 of the climb, where I knew water would be waiting for me. My bottles were nearly empty. I filled them again with ice and water and stuffed my mouth with food. I knew it would be hard to force myself to eat on the climb without breaking my aerobic rhythm or throwing up (not that it’s easy to stomach food in 107 degrees while standing still), so it was worth the extra 20 seconds to make sure my body continued to take in calories.
I was half way there, just another 7.5 miles in 107 degrees. The heat was starting to take a toll on my body and I started getting nauseous. I’m not sure if it was just the heat, or the fact that I was somewhere above 7,000 feet, or the combination of the two that had me on the verge of throwing up. I continued to bargain with myself, distracting myself with numbers, songs, interesting thoughts about riding and even plans of what I would have to do at work on Monday – anything at all to take my mind off the heat, altitude and fatigue. At around 8,000 feet, I was passed for the third time on the day by a young rider who was keeping a very strong pace up the climb. He asked, “how are you doing?” “A little hot,” I said with a smirk. He said something about it starting to cool off near the top, but my Garmin was still showing triple digits.
The heat did subside slightly on the last mile as more trees lined the road and I could catch the cool of the shade once in a while. Other times, a breeze would come by and breathe energy into my body, and I could get out of the saddle and hammer a few pedal strokes before the gust subsided and the heat went back to its oppressive role, forcing me to sit down and drop my heart rate once again. Finally, it was in sight, the sign I’ve been longing to see for two and a half hours – “Vista Point ¼ Mile.”
I was there! I made it! I survived the most difficult climb of the ride with only two water stops along the way. I was now 84 miles and 15,000+ feet of climb into my ride. It was time for my long (10-minutes or less) break of the day and it would be non-stop 52 miles to the finish from there.
As I rolled into the rest stop, I was shocked to see Chris still there. It was the altitude again that made it hard for him to eat on the go, so an extra long break was required to take in calories and avoid a hard bonk later on. He commented that we were both making very good time. I quickly ran the numbers in my head and realized that if I can make it back in two and a half hours, 10:30 was a reality.
After downing a coke, some food, a few salt pills and ibuprofen for my onsetting headache, I was ready to roll and so was Chris. We took the first two or so miles together as they were all downhill, but then the longer rollers began and Chris went forward as I kept my own pace.
Most of the rollers on the way back aren’t bad, but there is a 1.3-mile category four climb that adds 400 feet to the climbing total and by itself, it’s not a big deal, but it did stall the fast progress over the rollers to another crawl, forcing a change in rhythm. After 15,000 feet, any sustained climb is a chore, at altitude and in heat it is also a pain.
Once that climb was behind me, ahead lay 17 miles of rolling downhill that would bring me down to 6000 feet. I went as fast as I could, tucking on the steep pitches to maximize my speed and pedaling through when the road flattened out. As I approached mile 102, I knew there would be a rest stop, but I didn’t want to stop. I looked at my bottles and they were both three-quarters full. I felt that would be enough to get me to the finish.
I flew by the stop, seeing Chris get on his bike. He chased me down, went ahead on one of the rollers and we stayed at about 200 meters apart while the terrain was still pitched down. However, once the last climb began, Chris pulled away and I had another hill to climb.
I kept telling myself that I only have 8 miles to go until the end of the ride because the last 15 are a flying downhill that is more fun than work. Despite reminding myself how close I was, the usual adrenaline kick wasn’t coming. I had no more go to give than I was giving. With about three miles to go, I began to mentally crack. Every roller that was ahead seemed like the last one that led to the downhill, but time after time I found another climb behind the roller and my sprits were crushed over and over. At one point, I could no longer stay on the bike and I had to get off. I stopped, unclipped, laid my head down on my forearms and stayed that way for about 20 seconds.
“You have to go and finish this thing!” That thought got me back on the bike and I moved on. Shortly after, I passed a daunting mile marker that said 17.5 miles – that meant that I had another two miles to go until the slope turned down. I hoped with all that I had in me that the mile marker was wrong, that it was misplaced, that the end of this final climb was only around the corner, but that was not so.
I noticed a silhouette about 300 meters back and gaining (was I really just about to be passed for the fourth time after passing dozens and dozens of people?). The chase gave me reason to push, but my body had apparently conspired with my mind and I was once again on the brink of a mental breakdown. I had to take another stop, same procedure, same position. Almost instantly the rider appeared behind me and asked if I was okay. I only had energy to nod and watch him pull away behind the next turn.
I got back on the bike, started to turn the pedals and decided to crunch numbers again to see what my possibilities for a finishing time were and to get my mind off the pain. I saw that 10:30 was out of the question, but there was still a possibility that the first three digits of my time would be a one, a zero and a three, and I wanted to do all that I could to not go into ten-forties. That was the figurative slap on the cheek I needed to get a steady tempo going and power over the last few changes in pitch that culminated in that infamous last roller and marked the start of my descent.
The plunge down was fast and it looked like if I bombed the descent, I would be in the ten-thirties at the finish. A few miles down the hill I saw the rider who passed me earlier and I was determined to catch him. After the first five miles, the descent really pitched down and once I was reaching speeds of over 40 miles an hour, it was only a matter of time before the catch would be made. I caught the rider half way down the climb as I was taking no prisoners going down 9-Mile Canyon Road. My only problem was the severe cramp in my inner left thigh that developed in a prolonged left turn, where my left leg had to be flexed. Turn after turn on the winding road meant my left leg would either be straight or flexed. It would be a couple of minutes before the road straightened out and I could spin some air (because I was going almost 50) and relieve the cramp. The road ran hillside on the southeast side of the hill, so I had no blind right turns and was scanning the road ahead and using as much road as could to carry all the speed possible through corners. At one point, I was flying into a corner at 45+ mph and knew that I was in the process of absolutely crushing last year’s ride time.
I could sense the finish. Only 1000 feet to drop. The hot desert air was hitting my already sunburned face and dry lips, and then there it was, the final downhill straight and the cars going back and forth on 395. I was there! I made it! I survived 107 degrees and all I had the strength to do was stop my Garmin and yell out, “four twenty-five!”
My non-official total time was 10:35:20, with a riding time of 10:08:18. I set a new course PR by one hour, 24 minutes and 40 seconds. I beat my goal by a huge margin, but there I was, dizzy, delirious, overheated, barely able to speak or understand what I was thinking, and on top of it all my ears were popping from just dropping 5000 feet in a little over 26 minutes. Through all of that mess that was I at the finish of that ride, one thought came through clearly and resoundingly: “I will be back next year and I WILL finish this ride in under 10 hours!”