Note: This post is rated R for mild strong language and mature themes.
In last week’s post I described the exploits, particularly the gastronomic ones, of my friends and me as we tackled Stage 1 of the 2012 Everest Challenge stage race. Now, with the professional sport of cycling collapsing around us—Lance Armstrong’s team, his maid, and even his pet hamster have confessed to participation in his doping ring—I offer the sorry tale of my un-drug un-fueled assault on Stage 2 of the 2012 EC.
I slept unusually well for an EC second night; that is to say, I slept some. As my roommate John pointed out, the AC unit had a continuous fan feature, as opposed to those enemy-of-sleep versions that turn on and off all night. Still, as the chilled air compressor periodically cycled on and off, its low, deep groaning came and went. (Or was that John?)
The Uncle Sam cereal was even harder going the second day, because I was at the end of the box and all the heavy stuff—various kinds of seeds and, I think, gravel—had settled to the bottom. John and I ate in silence, which frightened me. Normally, the EC motel room banter is the giddy, profanity-laced stuff of locker rooms, but this was almost gloomy, like a wake. John and I could be accused of having a poor attitude, but as you shall see, prescience would be the better description.
We got to the start line as the sun was rising and the moon was setting. I think there was even an occultation of Venus in progress, but I was a bit distracted and didn’t look for it.
The main source of my distraction was my bowels. You may be rolling your eyes and groaning: “This again?!” Well, remember, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” The fact is, evacuation is a critical part of this sport, and is too often swept under the carpet. Now. Don’t get me wrong, the organization of EC is excellent overall, but they need more San-O-Lets (aka Port-A-Potties). On this day there were only two, and what’s worse, they were still atop a trailer. Not only did I not have time to wait in line, but I feared, albeit irrationally, that somebody would drive off while I was in there.
Fortunately, I took a lesson from last year when a guy coming out of a San-O-Let told me, “That thing’s out of toilet paper. I had to use my arm warmers.” So I’d brought a roll of TP from the motel. I found a good bush off the side of the road that would provide excellent cover from most vantage points—but not including, alas, that of the van. And that’s where the setting moon came into play. All the guys were about to photograph the moon over the jagged saw blade mountains when I entered the frame. There was nothing I could do—I had to go. You will not be seeing this “double moon” shot on this blog, though I hear it’ll be on the cover of “Forbes” next month.
Stage 2 – 76 miles, 14,030 feet of climbing
During the race, I drank four bottles of Cytomax, two bottles of Gatorade, a bottle of Heed, and two bottles of water. I ate four gels. I swallowed enough pride to produce a glut of bile, which tasted only a bit better than the Gatorade (which was lemon-lime, a flavor I burned out on during my 1994 bike tour and have wisely avoided ever since).
The first climb went pretty well, except for a) knowing that I was in 10th place and should defend that, while b) knowing I should pace myself, which meant watching twenty of my competitors ride away as soon as the road went uphill. It was sort of the “presidential primary” strategy: don’t do anything bold that might backfire; and, hope my opponents do.
John and I did the first climb and about half of the second climb together. It was hot and dry and my legs were heavy and I plinked along in my lowest gear a lot of the time, remembering how I’d cracked on the third climb the previous year. The idea was to save up my strength and finish strong, but I couldn’t find much strength to save. Paul, racing in the 45+ category that started ten minutes behind, blew by us, inspiring me to … well, to train better next year, or race smarter, or switch to an activity I’m better suited to, like typing.
The race promoters lengthened the second climb this year. They’d announced this on Friday evening, but didn’t say how much longer it would be. Looking back, I think we were all unknowing subjects in some kind of cruel psychological experiment. I kept expecting to see the leaders of my race coming down the other side, and the longer I went not seeing them, the closer to despair I came. (A more foolhardy rider would have supposed he was simply not that far behind. I knew better.)
I spent much of the climb trying to work out how I might calculate how far behind I was, based on when and where the leaders passed me on their way down. Doing math during bike races is notoriously hard, but I had plenty of time to think. By the time I finally saw Craig coming down, I had it worked out: I held in my head the current altitude at that moment (a better landmark than anything visual in this stark, Road Runner terrain) and the clock time. When, an eternity later (the climb having been, finally, four miles longer this year), I crossed that altitude again on my way down, I checked the new clock time and subtracted. Craig, it turned out, was twelve minutes ahead of me at that point. Pretty amazing, since he was still as sick as a dog, breathing raspily and almost unable to talk.
I couldn’t be bothered to pedal or get in an aerodynamic tuck during that descent. I just sat there, coasting, and waited for it to be over. I finally reached the van, which was parked at the base of the third and final climb, and saw Craig there, off his bike and in street clothes. As well as he’d’ been riding, he was still sick, and the heat and altitude made it impossible for him to breathe well enough to continue. He and Ian gave me some drink, gels, and encouragement, and I struck out for the final climb.
I was feeling pretty close to despondent. Where was all that energy I’d been saving up? Where was the enthusiasm I’d had on this climb the first couple times I raced EC? I couldn’t face the reality of what I had left to do: over two hours of climbing, with over 6,000 feet of elevation gain, in the baking heat. In previous years I had a teammate or two to ride with; this time I was off the back and oddly, breathtakingly alone. No rider in sight, anywhere. I could be anybody out here, on any day, in any era.
I couldn’t use my mileage to measure my progress because I hadn’t worked out how much longer that second climb had been. Meanwhile, the thought of slowly ticking off the altitude benchmarks—4000 feet, 5000 feet, 6000 feet, 7000 feet, 8000 feet, 9000 feet, and, yes, even 10000 feet—was far too demoralizing to face. (Plus, as often as I wiped the sweat off my bike computer, I couldn’t keep the screen clear enough to read it anyway.)
I devised a plan: instead of looking around me at the terrain to figure my progress, I’d just keep my eyes on the road ten feet ahead. That created the illusion of speed, at least. And I decided to “play” the entire double-album “Pink Floyd The Wall” in my head, including all the background sounds, TV snippets, the schoolteacher yelling “wrong, do it again!”, etc. Because I knew my frazzled brain would get caught in endless loops of certain songs, I could be confident that by the time I got to “Outside the Wall,” I’d have been climbing for at least 90 minutes. Then I’d be close enough to the end to monitor my progress without sliding into despair.
(The other benefit of this strategy was preventing the random songs that sometimes pop into my head while I’m riding. All the way up Alpe d’Huez during the 2003 La Marmotte, I had Ravel’s “Bolero” in my head, which was the musical equivalent of a prison sentence. John had had it even worse during the final EC climb of Stage 1: pondering that he had such a long way to go, he suddenly got “Ride Like the Wind” by Christopher Cross stuck in his head, and couldn’t get rid of it. Poor bastard.)
Around the time my brain got to “Goodbye Cruel World” I was actually doing a little better. At the higher elevation the heat had subsided a bit and I had a decent rhythm. I passed a couple of fellow Masters who had dropped me at the base of the second climb, well over an hour before. They were really crawling. “Dude, you’re a fucking stud!” one of them said. I have to admit, that encouragement felt pretty good.
There’s a descent about 2/3 of the way up this climb. The road drops some 200 feet, erasing your progress toward the finish. It’s totally demoralizing. I took the opportunity to eat a gel. Hunting in my jersey pocket I came upon a sleeve of Clif Shot Blocks that Craig had given me. My hand groped it, trying to figure out what it was. Once I’d identified it, my brain tried to comprehend what Shot Blocks were and what they did. You eat them, right? But what are they? And how do you get into the package? Is it like Pez? I give up trying to fathom this great Shot Block mystery and managed to find a gel.
I ran out of head-music. The last lyric, “Banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall,” was eerily apropos. My own heart was working far better than my poor legs; in fact, the heart’s foreman had sent half the chambers home. On the shallower pitches my heart rate wasn’t even in the 130s. My breathing was strangely, unsettlingly slow at times. I kept pushing on the right shift lever, hoping in vain that I actually had one lower gear. The final few miles were like slow motion. The guy I’d passed earlier, who’d called me a stud, now passed me back; if I’d had the energy I’d have said, “Do you care to rescind your earlier statement?” Worst of all, I was starting to feel lightheaded. Stretches of the climb appeared that I don’t recall ever having seen before. It was like when something familiar, looked at too closely, starts to look odd and strange.
Finally I reached a terribly steep ramp with a couple spectators on it, and someone said, “200 feet to go!” I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t dare. But then, why would he lie? I saw race officials sitting on lawn chairs. I saw a line painted across the road labeled “FINIS.” Still I couldn’t believe it (even though the finish line seemed long overdue). “Is this the finish? Am I done?” I cried out desperately. The officials laughed. “Yeah, you’re done.” Normally I would coast a few hundred feet down the other side to where the food was, but I couldn’t manage it. I clipped out and stopped. “Did you get my number, 802?” I asked half a dozen times. They had. “Can I borrow that empty chair?” Yes, I could. I sat there at the finish line for a good ten minutes, watching other riders come across. Two or three of them cried out desperately, “Is this the finish? Am I done?”
Finally I made it to the rest area. Jamie, 4th overall in the Masters 55+, greeted me enthusiastically and took my bike. I found a chair and re-slumped. I could smell the spinach-and-feta quesadillas the volunteers were cooking up, and I was hungry, but I literally lacked the energy to stand up and walk over there. For a whole hour I just sat. I couldn’t even bring myself to hunt for my bag of warm clothes. I’ve never been so shattered after a race.
Eventually I made it to the food tables, drank some Coke, drank some chocolate milk, drank some ginger ale, and then spied a big bottle of V-8 juice—the only real electrolyte replacement drink. I asked if I could pour myself some. “Yeah, please finish it up because it’s our last bottle.” I followed this with infinity quesadilla slices, then had to sit again. The chairs were all taken. I sat on a tarp. I found my bag, spent five minutes stretching my arm warmers over my squeaky, sticky arms, and got out my camera.
Paul sat down too.
At some point John showed up. As with Stage 1, he suffered terrible cramps during the last climb. (All my photos of the Stage 2 summit are from the seated vantage point.)
John made his pilgrimage to the food tent. He came back after awhile asking, “Could you guys find any V-8 juice over there?” Oops.
Eventually we found the energy to begin the descent. Normally I love this descent, but I really didn’t feel like being on my bike anymore. A short way down we stopped at a scenic overlook to snap some photos. Here’s one.
Unfortunately, the effort of descending that short distance overwhelmed me and I needed to lie down for a bit. The sun beating down on my face was intolerable. I was really in bad shape.
Miraculously, Ian and Craig showed up with the van. Here’s our whole crew, stoked to be done with riding for the day. (The exception was Paul, who manned up and rode the descent, just for fun.)
For the data nerds among you, here are my climbing stats (power and heart rate):
- 248 watts at 142 bpm on the first climb;
- 220 watts at 133 bpm on the second climb;
- 220 watts at 136 bpm on the last climb (my cadence was 61, so you can see my 39/27 gearing was actually plenty low enough, at least for a mosher like me)
Note that these are “dog-watts”—that is, they’re based on my rate of vertical gain, my speed, and my weight (f=mgh) without considering wind resistance, etc.
We stopped at a little hot springs resort to shower. (I won’t tell you where it is; it’s great that no other cyclists have discovered it.) One of the guys complained that his coin-op shower had been ice-cold. Craig went to investigate and determined, to his great mirth, that the rider in question had only turned the Cold handle, not the Hot. This is how shattered an EC rider can be.
A member of our bike club, Mary Beth, had been in Bishop a few weeks before and recommended Astorga’s Mexican restaurant. We gave it a shot. The salsa was good and hot, I had my first beer in many weeks, and someone ingeniously ordered guacamole. It was fantastic. I was starting to feel normal. But then things got really dicey because there wasn’t enough guac to go around. The only fistfight I’ve ever seen in a restaurant was at Juan’s Place in Berkeley and I had the feeling I was about to witness, if not participate in, another. Fortunately somebody had a cool head and simply ordered more guac.
My dinner was the giant combo plate: chile relleno, chicken enchilada verde, beef taco, beans, rice, and—just for the empty calories—a side of flour tortillas. It was a serious plate of food and I attacked it with a severity I only wish I could bring to bike racing. It has been said of my eating, “Sometimes I can’t bear to look.” I know Ken had a chile relleno burrito because I recommended it; other than that, I had tunnel vision and the rest of the table became peripheral blur, their speech a low drone. I was in The Zone. I should have been stuffed by the time we got out of there, but I was only just sated.
As we drove by the pizza place in Groveland, too late at night to stop, I looked longingly out the window. I got some potato chips from a convenience store when we stopped for gas. By the time we made the Bay Area I was more tired than hungry, and had to figure out how to get home from Rockridge. Ken loaned John and me his old van.
“It’s been totaled and the chassis is bent, so I had to remove the gear shift template, but I made a diagram of it,” he told me. Actually, that quote might bear no resemblance to what he said; I was barely coherent by this point. It was surreal driving that van across Berkeley at 1:30 a.m. Sometimes I was able to work the gears just fine; other times I couldn’t find first and just sat there, idling, hunting. As Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “The last long lap is the hardest.”