The night before RAMROD, I spent all this time preparing two sandwich bags filled with food and supplies. Clif bars, sports drinks, GU, spare tubes, CO2 cartridges, bike tools, etc. And then Tim came by to pick me up, and I left the two bags on the kitchen table. Noonan!
But of course, I didn't realize this until much later, so let's not jump ahead. Tim picked me up on Wednesday night, and we drove down to Enumclaw. Jesse's knee had acted up so he had to drop out, leaving just Tim and I from our original RAMROD crew of 6 or 7. It's another reason the ride is so challenging--it actually takes out riders before they even make it to the starting line.
We stayed overnight in Enumclaw, in a room in a building Erynn Petersen owns down there, right above some store shops. Tim and I were amped up for the race, and we had a hard time settling down. The room was dominated by a huge pool table that she and her husband had just had resurfaced, and we shot a few games and cooked a huge heaping of pasta to carbo load. We slept in two bunk beds at the end of the room, and I felt like I was a pro racer on the road, sleeping in a dorm.
At that point, I realized I had forgotten some of my food and supplies, and I had to avoid a sense of panic. I still had two spare tubes, and I could just eat more food at the rest stops. Still, little mistakes like that the day of a big race can be mentally distracting, minor frustrations that cause you to panic. Fortunately, I managed to fall asleep, and after what seemed like 10 minutes of sleep we were up. It was just after 4 a.m. on Thursday, and the registration desks were open. We dressed, carried our machines out, and drove over to the start line in the early morning dusk, when all is grey, subdued, and chilly.
We signed in, pinned our numbers on our jersey, and walked to the start line. Because the ride followed a somewhat dangerous course, each of our numbers had a start and finish tag. At the start line, they'd rip off the start tag to note that we had departed. If they didn't rip off a corresponding finish tag at the end of the race, they'd know to send out the search teams to look for the missing rider at the bottom of a cliff or ditch or something like that, the race volunteers explained. Oh.
And then, we were off. I wore the yellow jersey of DogDog.com that my STP team bought me the year before, hoping it would bring me the same good luck I had experienced the year before. Tim and I were frozen as we hit the farm roads out of the Enumclaw fairgrounds. A dense morning mist hovered over the fields we passed by, and occasionally we choked on the pungent odor of cow dung.
We eventually caught up to a fairly fast pack and latched on, and soon we were cruising. I tried to keep my heart rate under 150, but the adrenaline was pumping and I was over 150, occasionally touching 160. Not sustainable, but it's hard to hold back when you're full of energy. We were cooking at speeds over 21 mph for a good two hours or so, all the way to the base of the climb to Paradise.
Then, suddenly, I couldn't turn the pedals over anymore. It felt like I had popped. I was near the front of the paceline with Tim, and then I pulled out to the left to drop back. I moved back a few spots. And then back a few more. And then I lost contact with the first part of the paceline, and our entire line shattered, and Tim was gone. I started panicking. I hadn't even ridden 50 miles, and I had already hit a wall. Soon I was alone. I crossed the entrance into the park and entered the woods. The climbing had begun.
I staggered into the first rest stop by myself and met up with Tim again. I told him to continue on without me. Then he felt my tires, front and back, and said the back tire felt flat. I gave it a squeeze. It was flat. No wonder it had felt so difficult to turn the pedals over. The curse of the flats had bitten me again. The local mechanic helped me to fix it up, and I set off again. Tim had left with a group ahead, and I tried to keep a steady pace. I knew it would be difficult to catch the pack by myself. I knew I had over 5000 feet of climbing ahead to reach the top of Paradise, and I just wanted to make it over the top. RAMROD contains two major climbs, Paradise and Cayuse, but I wasn't even thinking about Cayuse yet.
I realized, as I moved along at about 7mph, that I had never even climbed more than 250 feet at a time. 5000 feet would be some 20 times higher than the highest climb I had ever done. It would hurt. My legs were still burning from trying to catch folks with my flat earlier, and the thought of not being able to finish crossed my mind for the first time. Slow and steady, slow and steady. I tried to find a steady tempo that would leave me heart rate below 160. Stronger riders started passing me regularly, but I resisted the temptation to stand out my saddle to pursue. Only 50 miles into the ride, I had changed my goal. I wanted to finish, and I didn't care if I would be the last rider in.
The climb took ages. I had to drop into my lowest gear, and still I could only turn my pedals over at about 65 to 70 rpm. My butt was more sore than normal, and I kept squirming on my seat to try and find the position of least pain. Fortunately, the view around me was so beautiful it took my mind off the physical suffering. The sun had finally poked its head out, and above me I could see the snow covered peaks of Rainier. The mountain itself is so massive from up close. It inspired awe, maybe a bit of fear. Every fifteen minutes or so I could pop my ears, like on an airplane. That's how high up we were.
When I finally made it to the top, I had to pull over in the Paradise parking lot and take my shoes off, my feet ached so much. Bike shoes are intended to be very snug, almost like rock climbing shoes or ballet shoes, so that as much of your legs' movements are transferred to your pedals. The sacrifice is that as your feet swell, they ache. This was as high as I would be all day, and I felt relief that I hadn't cramped up, but my entire body was not happy.
After a short break, I managed to force myself back onto the bike for the first big descent, the reward for the long climb. It would be one of the longest descents I had ever done, and soon I was up to 39-40 miles per hour, just flying. My legs were so tired I could barely keep my pedals at 3 and 9 o'clock, and I hung onto my handlebars for dear life over grates and irregularities in the road. Descending is exhilarating and frightening. One bad turn and you could be projected over the edge off a steep hill to who knows what. At the same time, passing riders on a descent, cutting corners as sharply as possible--there's nothing like it. It's about as much fun as you can have on a road bike, other than passing folks on the hills.
At the bottom was a rest stop, where I ran into Tim for the last time during the ride. My legs were sore to the core now and I was just barely past halfway done with the race. I tried not to think about Cayuse. Then, right out of the rest stop, I flatted. This time, I had to pull over and fix it myself, and I felt myself losing my cool as rider after rider passed me on the side of the road while I spent fifteen minutes or so putting a new tube on and trying in vain to get it up to minimum pressure. I couldn't get the tube up to 130 psi with my frame pump, but I had no choice but to go on with a semi-inflated tire until I ran into a support vehicle with a floor pump.
The next thing I remember is beginning the ascent up Cayuse, a shorter hill than Paradise in elevation, but much tougher because of the grade. This time, I struggled to stay between 6 and 7 miles per hour, and the sun was now beating down through a clear sky. I unzipped my jersey all the way down and tried to keep the sweat out of my eyes.
I was suffering. Various pains would appear out of nowhere during the ascent, and each time I tried to stay calm and wait it out. First it would be my quads, then my right hamstring, then my right shin, then my left. My right foot throbbed. At one point, I pulled over and took my right shoe off and tried to massage the pain out of my foot. My bike started to wander around the road a bit, my body too weak to keep it straight. Halfway up, I stopped to have a volunteer shower me with cold water.
Finally, the peak of Cayuse. The torturous climbing was over, though 44 miles still remained. A banana and a swig of water, and then I started bombing towards the finish line. Most of the last leg was downhill, and I was able to keep my speed up around 20 mph for a good portion of that time. I was pleasantly surprised with how much energy I had left considering I'd ridden most of the day alone. I never really found a cyclist or group moving at the same pace, so it was a long, lonely day in the saddle.
So I finished. Twelve hours total, of which about 10 of them consisted of ride time. I averaged about 15.5 miles per hour, and in total I covered about 157 miles. My average heart rate? 141.
Bill and Scott called to congratulate me, which was nice. After suffering most of the day alone in the mountains, I had this insatiable need to download.
The whole ride was more than I was prepared for, especially the two climbs. Basically, it was like a stage of the Tour de France, only longer. The climbs were pro-level grade. I was proud of myself for finishing, and more in awe of Lance Armstrong and other professional cyclists than ever before. I can't imagine doing that day after day for three weeks as in the Tour de France.
Next year, I may do it again. I didn't climb that well, and if I did it again I'd want to be in a position to attack on the mountain climbs, as opposed to hanging on for dear life. But for now, the training and suffering is behind me, and I look forward to getting back to life.