A gripping tale about a grueling endurance ride, ascending 5 mountain passes with over 15,000 feet of climbing? You KNOW that's gotta be a guest post. Because there is no way in hell that Crabby herself would undertake such craziness.
Death Ride Grandma, a beloved commenter here, recently attempted for the third time to finish this brutal ride. I know many of you regulars may be curious about whether she succeeded, and how things went along the way. So please welcome the always-inspirational Death Ride Grandma! --Crabby
Each year I said I would never, ever do it again. This year I had an ironclad excuse. I was to attend a wedding in London in mid-July. Then I double checked, and it was not until August. Then my niece announced her wedding date: July 10, at Lake Tahoe. Lake Tahoe is about 40 miles from the Death Ride, which was on July 11 this year. It almost seemed like fate.
Just a quick history for those of you who may not be quite as obsessed by this event as I am:
-At age 51, I got my first road bike and quickly started doing longer, and longer, and still longer rides. After a while, my trainer suggested that I sign up for the Death Ride. I laughed and refused. As I became more exercise obsessed oriented, I always laughed at people who thought I might go too far. “No, not me. I’ll never swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco. I’ll never run a marathon. I’ll never do the Death Ride!”
-At about age 59, I happened to drive through the area where the Death Ride takes place. I saw some cyclists, and they looked happy. The scenery was spectacular. I thought, why not? How’s that for a reason to train for a ride that goes well over 100 miles and includes five major climbs at moderate altitude (5500’-8700’) and accumulated climbing of 15,000’?
-I trained hard in 2013. I rode 4 of the climbs and got within 8 miles, 1500’, of the last one. Then I bonked (which in cycling terms means you have run out of readily available calories to burn – didn’t eat enough). It’s a weird feeling. Your brain convinces your body it MUST stop its activity. You can almost fall asleep standing up. And, ironically, you do not feel at all like eating. So – I didn’t finish.
-I trained harder in 2014, this time with a couple of friends. I was so ready! But I woke up with a mild case of what I think must have been food poisoning. Anyway, I couldn’t eat, even long before I got tired, so it was pretty clear it wasn’t going to happen. I did well for a sick day: I managed to ride 2 ½ climbs – about 60 miles with about 7000’ of climbing. But I was not even close to finishing.
After I made my decision to try again in 2015, my friends sighed, but agreed to train with me. (But next year, we are touring together, right???). I told my trainer that this year I wanted the minimalist program, not the no-holds-barred we did in 2014. So we were off.
It really felt good. We rode several century (100 mile) rides, some of our own designing, some organized and supported. We got so we were just fine with 10,000’ of climbing. Then we went to Markleeville, home of the Death Ride, to do our final major training push, 4 of the 5 climbs. It was a hot day. One friend was on sun-sensitive antibiotics and felt fairly awful all day. I ended up having such major cramps in my legs on the 4th climb that I couldn’t even coast downhill; just getting in the pedaling position made me yelp and swerve into the road. And as I was being driven down the final descent, we saw a huge column of smoke, presumably from a forest fire. It was a rough day. We could only hope that a bad dress rehearsal meant a good opening day.
The smoke was from a fire that was just starting to rage out of control. At one time, it had over 1000 firefighters working on it. It burned 26 square miles. Four of the five climbs were on roads that were closed to all traffic for about 10 days.
So all of us were holding our breath, watching the news and the event updates and the weather. We soon learned that a similar ride called Alta Alpina which takes place two weeks earlier had to be cancelled. We knew that the Death Ride is a major fundraiser (the Death Ride is a huge event – more than triples the population of the county for a couple of days) for the county schools. We hated to think that anything could get in its (ok, or our) way.
Finally, the winds died down. The fire retreated from Markleeville. The fire agencies – there were many – agreed to allow the ride organizers to set up their rest stops and permit 3500 crazy people to ride these so recently burned roads. And the day arrived.
My friends and I are persistent riders, but not very fast. In order to think of finishing this event – you must be at the last summit by 8PM – we chose to begin at 4AM. We were by no means alone. It is really quite an experience to be on a remote road, closed to all car traffic during the ride, with dozens of people on lighted bicycles. The charm of that, which goes a very long way towards alleviating the difficulty of getting started that early, had not faded this year. We heard the swish-sound of tires, an occasional “on your left,” a river we could not yet see, the huge silence in the background.
It was soon clear that my friends were having a strong day. I was not. I didn’t feel terrible, but I didn’t feel great, either. But to my surprise, although they were well ahead of me, I reached the first summit in precisely the time I had allocated for it. By this time, the sun was up, but it was quite chilly. 30s, actually, and I am a wimpy Californian. That temperature is not terrible for climbing, but now we had to zoom down the east side of the mountain whose west side we had just ascended. It’s a beautiful, fun, 9 mile descent. Open country, great views. The lanes are wide enough, the pavement is perfect, no need to watch for potholes, and there are only a few sharp curves, which are well marked.
This time, though, it was scary. I got so cold I was actually afraid I might lose my ability to control the brakes. Numb hands, numb feet, and when I got off the bike at the bottom of the hill, uncontrollable shivering. We sure didn’t want to spend a lot of time feeling like that, so we hurried through bananas and bathroom breaks, and turned around to climb back up. That was a pretty good way to warm up.
I still was not feeling great. My attitude was – cranky and getting crankier. I found myself dwelling on a memory of one of my daughters. We were on a sailboat. It was raining and chilly. She was 4. She emerged from her nap, came up on deck, pulled the thumb out of her mouth and said, “I hope you know I am NOT having fun!”
But I had committed so much to this, was so sure I would be able to do it, was so sure I did NOT want to give so much of my life to training for it again. And I don’t know, frankly, how long I can expect to keep getting stronger. I am 63, after all. No matter how hard it felt, I really thought I’d better find a way to get it done.
One of the effects of the cold seemed to be to threaten my legs with cramps. That was worrisome after the four-climb weekend. Fortunately, it turned out that although cold threatens, it does not follow through, but I didn’t know that yet. I, too, was not having fun. I was dreaming of how much better the day could feel. But it’s one thing to postpone an event that happens with reasonable frequency. I ran a bunch of 5Ks this winter, and they happen all over the place. I doubt there’s a weekend in the Bay Area that doesn’t have a couple. If I’d missed one of those, no problem. If I was having an off day, I’d just slow down a bit. It’s quite different to let the Death Ride go. This huge event happens one day a year and requires enormous preparation. I told myself sternly to get on with it!
And the descents really are fun. After the first one, cold was not a problem.
It was interesting, too, to see the ravages of the fire. They were not as terrible as I had feared they would be. We had ridden these very roads three weeks earlier. They looked then as they had looked for a long, long time. I heard estimates that this area had not burned for over 100 years (forest fires are a major and healthy part of California’s ecosystem; several plants found here cannot germinate seeds without the heat provided by a fire). The smell was present, but no longer terribly strong. Birds were still singing in the area, and many trees were spared.
So, up the third climb, which is the longest and probably the hardest, and surely the most scenic. It starts out easy, meandering along a river with gentle slopes and frequent flat bits. Then you cross a cattle guard (I hate riding across those!) and it gets serious. As you approach the summit, you begin to climb little ramps that have brief stretches of up to 15% grade. Ouch. You are now approaching 10,000’ of total climbing in only about 30 miles of riding. A ride is considered hilly if you climb an average of 100’ for each mile. That would mean 3000’ of climbing in 30 miles. This is also the very spot where my leg cramps had started to get my attention before, so I was feeling cautious. I got off and walked a couple of the steepest ramps. But eventually, I was at summit #3.
At this point, I seriously considered quitting.
Since I had been having a fairly lousy day, I had not done a good job of keeping to my oh-so-carefully thought out schedule, so now we would find it a bit challenging to get to the last two rest stops before their cut-off times. We made the climb (I walked a bit more, but not too much). We made a plan at the top so as to allocate our time as efficiently as possible. We rode as quickly as we could to my motel room in town – the first and only time we would pass any commercial area all day – so as to drop off anything we no longer needed, pick up fresh supplies of food, replenish sunscreen, stretch a bit. I had hoped to make this a nice, long stop, but it turned out we really had to scramble to do it at all. Then we hurried off again, and made the first cut-off easily. Well, I mean, we had almost 15 minutes to spare.
So now there was just one more cut-off, the last one before the second half of the final climb. It should have been easy. 6 miles with about 1400’ of climbing. I’d done it as my final taper-ride on the previous Tuesday. It had been easy, and had taken 45 minutes. We had an hour and 25 minutes to make it. But about this time I began to feel seriously slowed down. I walked a bit more. Not as much as I had done on my 2013 attempt. That time, my husband was pushing my bike. No, so far, this time was more about sore legs than extreme fatigue. We made it, though, with 20 minutes to spare. The last stop closed at 5:15. We had to cover 9 more miles by 8:00, and climb only 1500’. Surely we were going to make it.
Not easily, though. My friends were tired, but doing pretty well. I was not. Once we reached the climbing section – this one also begins by lulling you with some flattish stuff - I told myself I’d ride until I had climbed 100’, then walk a bit. I tried it, and that first 100’ wiped me out. By this time, I had climbed well over 14,000’ and had less than two miles, 1000’ to go. I walked it. Even that was hard, and kept getting harder. After a while, my saintly friend insisted she would push my bike as well as her own, and that no matter what, we were going to finish, and do it together! I plodded on and on. At last, I reached the summit (the rest stop is about 1/10 mile past it, and downhill a bit), and right there the ride support ambulance pulled up and the guys in it tried to persuade me to accept a ride! I said no thanks, it was downhill from here. The paramedic in back opened his sliding door and tried to talk me into it. No way.
I ambled down the short slope. My friends were at the gate with three bikes. It was about 7:15, over 15 hours from our start. We got on our bikes. We rode in. We collected our fifth stickers and our Five-Pass Finisher pins. We are eligible to buy the special 5-Pass Finisher jerseys. We made it!
PS Yes, I am sort of celebrating this – after three years of trying – but I wish I had been able to do more, and better.
PPS But my first words as I reached the finish were, “Free at last!”
PPPS There is still no apparent danger that I will take on either the marathon or the swim.
PPPPS Believe it or not, my favorite t-shirt says, “No Pain, No Pain” – came from that era when everyone went around saying smugly, “no pain, no gain,” an idea I never did like. I’m going to have to remind myself to live up to that shirt better this year.
PPPPPS I was used up. I discovered at the top of Carson Pass that it is actually possible to fall asleep standing up.