Date: July 11, 2009
Weather: Clear skies, warm in the morning to hot later, then cold rain showers during the last pass; some winds, moderate at times but mostly head/tail rather than strong side gusts (which I experienced there a few weeks prior)
Other people present: I rode with my friends Shannon and Rita along with a few others.
Personal goal: finish all 5 passes safely
A few weeks prior, I went up to an altitude training weekend with the Velo Girls. [Note--thanks to Kyle T. for sagging that weekend, and for giving me some of the photos posted here!] The first day, we rode an easy 30 miles just to spin the legs out a little. The next day, we tackled Ebbetts Pass, which has a max elevation of 8730', and Pacific Grade, which has a section with a 24% grade. (I'm glad I have a compact.) The next day we climbed Monitor, front and back. For the actual Death Ride, cyclists climb to Monitor Pass, descend to Hwy 395 and then return along the same route. For the 3rd and 4th passes, cyclists climb to Ebbetts Pass, descend to Hermit Valley, and then return. There is a long section with flat to some big rollers and often headwinds to get to the last pass—Carson. This pass is quite long (9-19 miles perhaps, depending on where you consider the start to be) but has a long, mild section partway through.
We stayed in South Lake Tahoe, about 40 minutes from the start, and left early enough to get riding by 5:40 AM. The actual start is at Turtle Rock Park, but people just start from their cars parked along a long stretch of road. We hit a big hill right away and I could feel my lungs burning. I was still recovering from a really bad cold/cough that struck me down earlier that week. I wasn't sure if I would be able to ride, let alone climb at altitude. Initially worried, I decided to wait and see how I felt. We cruised down some fast, open descents and I was happy to note that the winds were not too bad. Descending in my drops felt comfortable, unlike a year ago; this is probably one of the biggest improvements I have made to my riding this year. (It helps that the front end of my new bike fits me a lot better.)
Pass 1: Monitor Pass, front side. This climb is about 8 miles long, with a steady grade. Halfway up, there is a brief and welcome respite. I felt strong although I was having some blood sugar issues. Since then, I have learned that many people have high blood sugar problems at high altitude. Perhaps high altitude causes insulin resistance or some delivery problem? We got to the top and someone slapped the first sticker on my number as proof that I was there. Descending down the backside of Monitor was fun. Although some of the turns are tight, most of it is manageable at a good clip; and with the wide, open views, I had the sense that I might take flight at any moment! In fact, when I was there before, a motorcyclist somehow lost control on one of the corners and flew off over the steep edge. So this contributed to an extra dose of caution on my part. Going down, we realized that we must have started later that most people, because the mass of riders was heading up. We got down the 10-mile descent safely, and took off our arm warmers. It was getting hot. They slapped on our sticker at the bottom. Nowhere to go but up...
Pass 2: Monitor Pass, back side. This climb feels steeper and is very exposed. After an easy first mile or so, the climb has a very steady grade until about 2-3 miles from the top. I tucked in behind a Webcor guy who was fine with me latching on. This helped me maintain a steadier pace. I caught up with my friend Shannon halfway up at one of the water stops and we rode the rest of the way up together. The winds were not bad near the top, and I latched on to a group of guys cruising by. They were going pretty fast and I held on for a while and one guy seemed surprised. Fun... We finally made it to the top of Monitor for the second time and stopped briefly. My blood sugar, which had been hovering around 300 (very high), was coming down a bit to 250. I had to eat something anyway, though—I was very hungry by this point! The descent down Monitor was fun; I felt comfortable especially since the winds were not too bad. There was a pretty strong headwind at one point but that wasn’t an issue for this grade of descent.
Pass 3: Ebbetts Pass, front side. Two down, three to go. From my training weekend, I felt that this was the hardest climb. It has a lot of variation in grade, and I think the average is only something like 6%; but, some of it is very steep, close to 20%, and there is a section of sustained climbing at 12% (or so I've read) at the end. The actual real climb (you know it when you see the road go straight up) is about 6 miles. Before getting there, some Davis guys came by and Shannon and I tucked in behind until the road got a lot steeper and one of them had some mechanical issue with his wheel. During the climb, I just plugged away but had some moments where I just felt really, really tired. At one point, I just pulled over to the side for a break. I checked my blood and it had dropped from 250 to 100 in about 40 minutes. Yikes! No wonder. (Ha, it's easy to blame it all on the blood sugar.) I ate a couple gels to keep me from totally bottoming out and just plugged along. I think it took me 55 minutes to go 5 miles during this climb. It was a really hard section for me, but I told myself all I had to do was just keep going and not worry about how fast or slow I was. Did I mention this was a tough stretch? It was more exposed and hot during this stretch. The views are spectacular, though, and there is a sparkling mountain lake partway up. Stopping for a brief dip in the water did cross my mind. But onward... Finally, finally, I made it to the top and got my 3rd sticker. A volunteer grabbed my bike and I went for the food. I hadn't eaten as much in the morning because of the high blood sugar, so took the opportunity to chow down. As a special bonus, some kids were handing out Red Vines as I left the aid station. I nearly bit the dust grabbing a couple vines (totally worth it). Descending the backside was a little technical, mostly because of all the people. Because there were more people climbing than descending, and because the road is narrow with no centerline, people had a tendency to squeeze out the descending lane. Also, since people have various comfort levels descending, there would be times when I needed to pass but had to wait a while to do so. I erred on the side of caution here and just tried to be patient. Eventually I got around the main logjam and cruised on down to Hermit Valley. I met up with my friend Derek, who had joined Shannon, but told him I was just going to turn around right away.
Pass 4: Ebbetts Pass, back side. I couldn't remember how many miles this climb was, but did know it had felt sort of endless when I went up during training. But I also remembered it being a little easier. Partway up, I ran into my friend Courtney, who was sporting her Team Type 1 jersey. She just finished helping crew for their RAAM team this year, and so it was good to chat with her briefly. I was hot climbing and not feeling great, and I wished I knew how many miles we had to go. Also, for the first time that day, I thought I should check and see how I was doing with respect to the cut-off times. It was about 11:50 when I checked, and I had climbed about a mile I think. The cutoff at the top was for 2 PM. Huh. I was a little concerned that I was cutting it tight; for some reason I just couldn't figure out how far I had to go. I had to stop at some point to rest in the shade. I wasn't sure what was going on but I just didn't feel so great. I think I was just feeling the effects of the climbing, the altitude, having a cold, and crappy blood sugars. I thought maybe I needed more insulin but didn't dare take any. Low blood sugar is usually much worse for me than being a little high. I rode up the last bit with Shannon (who had easily caught up with me); we were guessing we had 2 miles to go when we turned the corner and saw the top! We were there--hallelujah!! And we made the cutoff by about 30 minutes I think, so it wasn't too horrible. I was happy to have only one more climb to go. Somehow, I thought the last one would be easier. The descent down this side of Ebbetts is probably the most technical on the ride. Very few people were climbing, so it was much easier to pass slower riders. I tried to be cognizant of my technique and enjoyed this stretch.
LUNCH: of course, lunch gets its own section. We ate lunch at the bottom. As we were getting ready to go, someone lost control of his bike somehow, rode into the bushes and flipped over. He popped up after saying, "I'm fine!" but the medical people were on him. I guess he was okay after all--just some scrapes and bruises. I think he had some technical issue because the road was clear. Anyway...
Interlude: There is a long stretch before Carson, with some headwinds. The beginning part was more or less flat and I had revived a little after our lunch break. I was able to jam it into high gear and Shannon and some other guy fell in behind. I love this type of terrain and felt great despite the headwind. After a longish pull, the other guy offered to take over. And just in time! The winds really picked up and he had a much harder job. I should have mentioned that the winds weren't so bad during my pull, but I decided to let the guy be a gentleman, after all. Some other people stuck on to our group and we cruised past Markleeville. At this point, it was very hot and exposed, and I just fell apart on the climbs. After the last long climb here, we passed by the cars. I was going to toss my arm warmers but passed the car going downhill and decided I'd rather lug them with me than turn around. I still had about 40 miles to go at this point, after already going somewhere around 90. Forty sounded like a long way to go, but I knew about half of that would be downhill. We hit the aid station before the start of Carson Pass and I let them cool me off with the hose. I just felt bad at this point but just wanted to get this thing done. I tried some Coke and ate some other food and we eventually got going.
Pass 5: Carson Pass. I think this climb is something like 19 miles, but it's not all uphill. I wish I could say that my legs came alive or that I got my second wind. I was just struggling through it, though. I had a few good moments here and there but mostly I was just hot and tired. There was also a moderate headwind in this section, if I remember correctly. A few of my friends who had completed 4 passes were waiting for Shannon and me and cheered me on as I passed. Thanks, guys! We hit the last aid station before the top of Carson and I tried to refuel one last time. I had noticed a few raindrops with surprise. "I wonder what's going on up there," a rider said, pointing to the top of Carson Pass. Dark clouds were covering the tops of the mountains there. Ugh. Please, no rain.
We rode a couple miles before the rain really started in earnest. It still wasn't too cold, but it was soaking. I hoped it would be a passing storm. It kept raining, though, and we decided to pull over to put on our arm warmers. This is when I learned 2 valuable lessons: 1, don't dump your arm warmers when riding in the mountains and 2, don't ride your bike into a soft, sandy shoulder. I pulled over and immediately sank in the sand/gravel. My right foot was unclipped but of course I fell to the left. As I went down I saw some bikes and felt my head hit against something. Ugh!!! We had been pacelining with a couple guys, one French guy and another Google jersey guy. They were trying to lift my bike off of me but I was still clipped in. I had hit my head on Google guy’s foot/pedal and it hurt. Fortunately he managed to get around me okay. Oh man, was I going to make it this far and then have to stop? I got up and saw that my seat post had twisted; but surprisingly I felt no pain at all, which seemed sort of strange to me. Jim (the Google guy) was so kind as to fix my seat post but then I turned and saw my handlebars. The left shifter had bent in. At first I thought the whole handlebar was bent ala my Cannondale from my Feb 1 bike crash. This is when I totally lost it. I mean, I was standing there, bawling uncontrollably on the side of the road. Being as tired as I was, it was too much to handle. But French guy saved the day. "See you can just pull it back." He fixed it and things seemed to work okay. I was surprised a little by my reaction but I guess I have been holding a lot of emotions in lately and being tired, I had no will to resist. Once I got going I felt a lot better, and stronger (for a while) and thought, "I guess I just needed a little cry."
The rain stopped and we ticked off our last 9 miles. I just told myself to keep going, not to worry about my pace too much. The road curves and I somehow told myself that the finish must be right there, even though I could see the road kept going higher (“Maybe this pass doesn’t end at the top!”). But I didn't see any cyclists up on that stretch. "Oh wait, there's one," I realized with great disappointment! Ahhh! Finally, with cars whizzing by on this stretch, the long march came to an end, and I was at the top. I got my 5th sticker, but didn't have the energy to sign the poster at the top. As someone offered me an ice cream bar, I said "No thanks," but was thinking, "Hell no!" A cloud had come over the pass again and it was cold and starting to rain. I started shivering and felt uncomfortably cold. Shannon scored some plastic bags, which would be our impromptu jackets for the descent. I needed to warm up a little, though. Poor Shannon, who had already waited for me to finish, kindly waited some more in the cold as I covered myself in a jacket and blanket from the emergency radio operators. The radio woman thought I was there for SAG, but I really, really wanted to just finish the rest of the ride. I knew that it would be warmer once I got off the top. But I was shaking and didn't want to do anything stupid. SAG wouldn't be leaving for a while, though, and I just felt like I needed to get off the top of that mountain. Once the rain let up again, Shannon and I headed down.
Taken after the ride and after I started to take off my bag-jacket,
this photo sort of sums up my feelings at the top of Carson.
this photo sort of sums up my feelings at the top of Carson.
The first few miles were absolutely miserable. I was freezing, and I usually don't mind the cold too much. The plastic bag helped, and I don't think I would have made it without my arm warmers. I tried to keep my lips warm; for some reason, this seemed important! I was still shivering and kept the pace conservative and looked forward to any sections where I actually needed to pedal. After getting down several miles, I could feel the air warm up and I stopped shaking. There were also a few flatter sections, which helped me to warm up. Thank goodness. The descent is really fantastic, and I think this is where I hit 46 MPH, my max for the day (maybe ever). No 50's for me... I just didn't feel like it was safe. Before too long, we got to the last turn before our cars. "Oh please let my car not be too far or over any climbs," I hoped. Soon enough, we were there, finished. I was totally exhausted, but so happy to have done it.
Overall, I was happy that I finished, but wish I could say that I felt better doing it. But I hadn't been able to train as much as planned, and the bad cold really knocked me down the week leading up to it. So, I got my pin and I'll get the jersey. And I think I am stronger because of the experience.
A few lessons learned: I learned even more about the value of pacelining, and felt much more confident of my bike handling on the descents than during the training weekend. (This had something to do with the winds, though.) I also learned that having a mental strategy for something like this is important. The climbs plus headwinds at times can become really discouraging, especially when tired and/or not eating/drinking enough.