Pain and Redemption
Finally, I got a taste of the whole ride. Though predictably sweet at the finish, the sour and bitter moments were all too familiar.
Last year, I DNF'd this ride at 108 miles (Mono Lake), simply unable to get the legs moving again after hours of altitude-induced misery. It was my first real experience with high altitude sickness and I was resigned to the stuff I'd heard and read. There's just no way around it, I was told. Either you luck out, or strike out if the symptoms hit you in the face.
This year, I had mixed thoughts about signing up again. In the end, I wanted redemption enough, I suppose, even if I knew there would be a good chance I'd have to deal with the same old ugly feelings that spelled the end of my day last year.
We arrived at Bishop at 8:30 PM on Friday, just before the restaurants started closing. We ordered dinner to go, dashed off to the hotel to check-in for the ride (an exercise in diplomacy, as we both neglected to notice that we weren't on the ride roster till just one night ago -- even as we registered in early May), then back to the restaurant to pick up food, and back to hotel to check into room, get unpacked, eat dinner, sort out stuff and hit the sack.
Bedtime at 11:30 PM. Chrissakes. One of these days, we'll actually get more than 5 hours of sleep before a long ride.
We departed with the 5:15 AM mass-start. About 230 riders were on deck, many of whom -- once again -- are of the sort who leave us in the dust. In the morning chill (low 50s), we rode through the ranches of Round Valley in the Owens River region of Inyo county. Sunrise glowed on the Eastern face of the Sierras, whose walls and peaks were blanketed with much more snow than I recall last year.
After the first checkpoint at mile 30, and two unscheduled bush-watering stops, we hit the first notable rise of the day, Old Sherwin Grade. This road just messes with your head. The rise appears anything but steep, but feels like rolling through a freakin' mud pit for 8 miles. It's the first brutal reminder you get that your sea-level climbing stumps are worth half their value at this altitude. The numbers do confirm it's a pretty significant climb: 2,500 ft. gained in about 11 miles, to a height of around 6,900 feet.
The sections following are basically scenic detour loops off Highway 395. The first loops around Crowley Lake and the pastoral Long Valley. The next, a trip up to Mammoth Lakes, best known for world-class ski slopes and resorts (and Summertime mountain biking, for that matter). As we travelled up towards the ski lodges, it was clear ski season was still on. There were people running about with boards and skis, some hitching rides from strangers to the resorts.
This year's winter brought the area so much snow, in fact, that they expected ski season to continue at Mammoth possibly till early July! Tioga pass, through Yosemite National Park, was also closed to all traffic and was expected to remain so for another 3 weeks, according to rangers.
Lately, I've been having odd encounters with wildlife on bike rides. Mountain lion encounter in Napa County. Bird smacking into my chest on a Livermore valley descent. Crow dropping snake on my arm in Humboldt county. Weird shit. Good thing my wildlife encounter this time around didn't amount to much, as I barely missed a baby rattlesnake with my front wheel while on the 395 shoulder on the way to Mammoth. Lisa was to my side at the time, actually, so we both lucked out, not freaking the thing out by surrounding it as we did. Our friend, Doug, on the other hand reports that on the Sunday staff ride, he had to bunny hop over a full grown one, rattling, hissing and coiled to attack (he had noticed it on the road too late to stop).
It was at Mammoth Lakes when I began to feel really loopy last year from the altitude. The highest point of the ride comes in this stretch, 8,230 feet in the sky, in fact. My senses told me I was doing better this time, but my legs were just as mushy as the last time. It was really frustrating. Fatigue was setting in so quickly despite a concerted effort to dial down my effort. It's like a tractor beam was pulling me backwards. And it wasn't like I was cramping up or anything. There was simply no life in the legs and my pulse was skyrocketing with the faintest of efforts. Damn, here we go again!
Meanwhile, Lisa sailed up the hills like she was on auto-pilot. Outtasight and minutes ahead of me in no time. Repeatedly, evidence shows she is unaffected by high altitude. In fact, I believe she thrives on it.
After descending from the Mammoth scenic drive and a quick stop at checkpoint #3 (mile 71), there's one nasty grade to negotiate before heading into the June Lake loop: the slog up to Dead Man's Summit on Highway 395. Again, at sea level, it would probably be nothing. But like last year, this bump was really killing me. The grand reward for making it past it, however, remains my favorite part of the whole ride: the June Lake loop. I'm sure most people who repeatedly do this event would agree.
When the lake first comes into view at Oh Ridge, a most breathtaking vista of the lake's deep blue water surrounded by evergreens and the towering summits of Carson Peak and its neighbors. After a short roll through "town", the loop roadway hugs the mountainside so close, the enormous masses of snow-capped rock seem to hover over you. And after just 10 minutes, the scenery changed almost completely into a more arrid and barren area surrounding Grant Lake on the way back to Highway 395. The winds instantaneously picked up and seemed to shift direction wildly every half-second. Luckily, when I made the left turn onto Highway 395 to head towards Mono Lake, it was mostly a Westerly cross wind as opposed to the 20 mph headwinds we experienced last year.
By the time I reached the lunch stop at the Mono Lake County Park, my mood was pretty lousy. I dumped my bike, lay flat on the grass with my helmet still on, wondering just how the hell I was going to pull this ride off... and why I wanted to in the first place. I felt only marginally better at this point than I did last year. And I knew how horrible I felt then. There were still 90 miles to ride, with another long climb to an elevation of over 8,000 feet. Lisa thoughtfully fetched my lunch sandwich, chips and a cookie. Within 10 minutes, I wolfed it all down, restocked my bottles, hit the bathroom and stubbornly decided to soldier on.
My ass certainly wasn't happy about it. And I didn't quite know where I'd get the energy to climb out of Mono the other way on 395, back to 120. And sure enough, I went at a snail's pace most this way. Lisa dropped me like a brick and once again was out of sight within minutes. There was some sweet relief upon turning left on Route 120 East from 395 -- a gusty tailwind that made the first 5 of the next 44 miles on this one road the easiest flat stretch I felt all day.
Once around the bend of the Mono Crater area and the lake's South Tufa shore, however, ugly uphill business re-commenced. Just get to Sage Hen summit, is what I kept telling myself all day. Just get there, and the rest could be an express to the finish. Except, 'getting there' in the 10 mile stretch between the lake shore and the summit proved itself neary heartbreaking to me. Negative thoughts flooded my head. At one point, I really lost the will to keep pedaling, giving in to countless moments when I cursed myself for even being there. I got off the bike, slumped myself over the handlebars and thought, "What the fuck now?"
Soon after, my friend Doug Goodwin (rattlesnake dude), on roving SAG duty rolled by and asked how I was doing. Hmmph. Loaded question, I thought. "The will's gone, bro."
"It's just half a mile to the summit though," he cracked.
Shit, what did I do? Sent Doug off, passed on the car ride I was planning to take, insisted I'd be fine (fat lie at the moment), and got back on the damn bike. I've had very few moments in my life that were as wrecklessly carefree as this one. But on I went. Reluctantly. Stupidly. It felt like it took me 15 minutes to travel the next 2 miles to the Sage Hen checkpoint. I craawwwwwled.
When I finally got to Sage Hen, I spent no more than 5 minutes scarfing down roasted peanuts and refilling bottles. If there was any chance I would continue riding, I'd have to take the best of it by getting down to a lower elevation. Quickly.
Fortunately, the plunge from Sage Hen is just the ticket. Numerous times, downhill grades were much steeper than they appeared, an illusion created by the vastness of everything surrounding the immediate terrain. These stretches of the descent were so fast that I quickly got past the 50mph mark without even trying to be aerodynamic. On the third fast stretch, I tucked, pretending like I was some kind of pro. Speed quickly went to 53mph. Tuck, tuck, tuck. Couldn't quite go any faster. But the adrenalin rush was the first step to a steady rebound that guaranteed my finish.
All the territory that surrounded me was also a completely new riding sight and experience to me. Riding in the desert, not really my cup of tea, but I appreciated it for the moment. Nothing but miles and miles of sage brush around. In the section of 120 leading up to Benton Hot Springs, rolling hills reminded me I wasn't completely out of the woods yet. Each pitch upwards felt insultingly painful. There were lots and lots of these bumps to spice up the next 20 miles, not to mention the awful bone-jarring cracks in the road, nearly all of which were simply unavoidable. One sight I really marvelled were the smooth, wind-blasted boulder formations just outside Benton Hot Springs.
One -- OK another -- thing I could have done without -- whine whine -- were the tiny desert bugs that passed through my helmet vents and getting stuck on my head. Lisa vouched for these blasted little buggers too. You couldn't see them in the air, but they were unmistakably there. Nasty things made my head itch for hours, and left yucky bumps and scabs on my head days after. Some sort of fine hair net around the helmet for this section might have been good.
I caught up to Lisa upon reaching the Benton checkpoint (mile 159) and actually left before she did. I spent no more than 5 minutes at the stop, pretty resolved to get this ride over and done with. By now, however, I knew I was feeling much better. We were also down to 5,430 feet and the ride just continues to lose elevation for almost all the remaining 35 miles.
Turning onto Highway 6 heading back to Bishop, the first 5 miles or so are notably fast, thanks to a pronounced downhill grade. It levels off a bit afterwards, but continues to be mostly downward in a very slight grade so that cruising in a big gear is not only possible -- it's downright comfortable!
For most of the final stretch, there was a strong Westerly crosswind. I was lucky to have had a fellow named Jody from Las Vegas to echelon with for about a 10 mile stretch. Then the crosswinds turned into a headwind for about the last 8 mile stretch. The sun was setting, so the air started cooling off ever so slightly. Knowing the finish was not far away, I got in the drops and started riding hard. Much to my surprise, I had the strength to do it. In fact, it felt as if I hadn't really used my muscles much at all until now. Wow -- so that's how different it is for me when there's just no oxygen getting to the muscles. Damn.
Lisa and I got back to the finish within 5 minutes of each other, just before nightfall. She looked as ecstatic as she did last year to finish this ride again, one of her favorites, she admitted. On the driveway to the Outdoorsman Lodge, I was merely sober and relieved. That's it -- I've done it, but I think my chances of signing up again would be really slim. Blame the fact that I just don't do well at all when a ride stays above 6,500 feet above sea level for most of the day. And I just can't see life allowing me to spend a 1-week acclimation period before a ride, not right now anyway. But looking back at the event with a more complete picture, I now realize how great it really is. It's physical and social environment are rich and rewarding, and Planet Ultra always delivers with quality support, thanks to experienced volunteers who actually ride the ride themselves the next day.