A crash woke us up out of the darkness.
Mike and I had arrived in Markleeville on Thursday night, and spent Friday resting. I went out for a short spin on the bike, but mostly we ate, napped, and conserved our energies for the morning ahead. I intended to go to bed at 7pm, get up at 2:30am, and get out on the road by 3:30am, giving me a two-hour head start on the Death Ride. So there would be absolutely no chance of sleeping through the appointed hour, Mike and I had set both our cell phone alarms and the hotel alarm clock to ring at 2:30am. Then we went to bed.
A horrible crashing noise brought me bolting out of bed. WHACK! THUMP! right next to our door. I was momentarily convinced that the world was ending, but remembered just in time that the hotel-keeper had warned us not to put food in the outside trash cans, because “the bears have come by every night this week”. A bear had just over-tipped the trash can in front of the room and was busily rooting through it.
Blearily, I looked at the time on my watch. 2:15am. “Well,” I thought, “I might as well get up, since I’m not getting any more sleep with a bear banging around outside.”
I swung out of bed, turned off all the alarm clocks, and quickly got ready. I had set all my cycling clothes, etc. out the night before (aware from past experience that my IQ at 2:30am is close to that of cottage cheese). I prepped the bike and myself, ate a quick breakfast, and poked my head cautiously out the door. The banging noises had slowly gone away as I prepped, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to be facing a hungry bear. (I didn’t think the “Death Ride” should be renamed the “Eaten by a Bear Ride”.)
Nope. Nothing out there. I made one last check, kissed Mike goodbye, and rolled off into the night.
It was surprisingly warm for 3:24am, the world a pool of darkness to either side of my headlight beam. I rode easily along the flat road from Markleeville to the CA 89 – CA 4 junction, seeing no one and nothing but the road ahead. It was an eerie feeling, almost like floating.
I reached the intersection, turned left, and began the long climb up Monitor Pass.
It was disorienting, climbing in the darkness. I couldn’t read my GPS or my cyclocomputer, so I had no idea how fast I was going or how far I had gone. I knew I was breathing harder than I should be for the effort I was putting in – the 5500′ altitude was getting to me – but I wasn’t sure whether to ride by “feel” or by how hard I was breathing. I finally ignored all that and pressed on through the darkness.
The sky lightened to dark blue; the stars faded out, one by one. Soon I could see the road, faintly, through the darkness. Dawn was coming. How far had I come? How far was left to go? I checked my GPS, but I still couldn’t read it. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I saw a tent with water bottles and a van parked next to it. I pulled up, and my light woke up the occupant of the van, who stumbled out and told me that the water stop wasn’t open yet, but I could have some water if I needed it.
The water stop! I was only halfway up Monitor Pass. I thanked the man, declined the water (my Camelbak was still nearly full), and moved on up the pass. Dawn came, and I turned off my lights and kept riding. At 6am, I crested 8300 feet and saw the peak: the rest stop was right there, spread out in a flat part of the road. As I rode in, someone ran up behind me and put a sticker on my rider number. I had completed the first pass. Victory!
There were very few other riders in the rest stop, maybe ten others who (like me) had started very early. I ate a little, and pressed on. The back side of Monitor was gorgeous – stunning views down the mountain – and I sailed quickly down the broad straightaways and sweeping curves. At the junction with 395 – the turnaround point – I went into the rest stop and collected my second sticker. I would need all five to be certified as a five-pass rider.
I struggled up the back side of Monitor. I was definitely riding more slowly than usual, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it – even a nice gentle 7% grade felt like a 10% grade, and I found myself breathing hard with the slightest effort. I also lacked energy – found myself having to stop for a few moments every fifteen minutes or so to catch my breath. As I rode up, the main pack caught up with me and started to pass me, three or four abreast. As one lean, fit cyclist passed me after another, I found myself intensely aware of being overweight and undertrained. I struggled on.
Downhill on the front side of Monitor was glorious. I bombed down the hill, hitting 50(!) mph on one of the long straightaways – a new personal top speed. (And hopefully the fastest I’ll go – I didn’t realize I was going that fast!)
At the bottom of Ebbetts Pass, I stopped to refuel. For me, lack of energy usually means I haven’t been eating enough, and I hadn’t been eating much at the rest stops, so I ate a bit extra. This would prove to be a bad decision.
Ebbetts was really, really hard. Monitor Pass topped out at 8300 feet, with a nice, gentle grade near the top. Ebbetts topped out at 8800 feet, and was quite steep in places (12% grade). I rapidly found myself gasping for breath. I broke out some more energy GU, but was worried about running out, so I tried one of the Clif Shots I had picked up at the rest stop. Ten minutes later I was suffering from a horrible bloated feeling, barely able to move. I wondered if I was going to vomit. I kept going.
At 11:30 am, 50.1 miles, I had had to pull over three times in the last fifteen minutes to rest. There was simply no way I was going to finish, no way to finish climbing up this hill.
Three minutes later, I was back on the bike, struggling uphill again.
I made it to the top, on sheer willpower. I rested for a bit – about twenty minutes – and then realized they would be chasing people out of the rest stop in half an hour. I descended to the bottom, down a steep and tricky grade, dodging other riders down the way. I looked at the steep grade I was descending and realized there was no way I’d be able to make it back up that hill. A 12% grade? When I could barely do an 8% grade?
Down in Hermit Valley, they had run out of stickers, so they wrote “HV” on my rider number. I was now officially a four-pass rider.
I felt better on the way back, curiously. I felt much less bloated – the effects of the Clif Shot, or the extra food, had worn off, and I finally had the sense to slow down – riding at a heart rate of 146 beats per minute rather than 155, even if it meant going ridiculously slowly (2.9 mph up a 12% grade). One rider was walking up the hill, going only a little slower than I was. But I was making it.
I arrived at the peak of Ebbetts at 2:50pm, just in time to get the last of the water. They announced that Ebbetts was going to reopen to traffic at 3pm, and I had only one hour to make the time cutoff at Woodford, so I grabbed my bike and hightailed it out of there. I descended Ebbetts quickly, yet conservatively – much as I wanted to make the time cut, I was not risking another crash. I had fun descending the whizzy downhill.
The descent was long, and I realized fairly quickly that I was in trouble, time-wise. I had no idea how much further it was to Woodford from Markleeville, but I remembered it being at least five miles – two of them uphill, to Turtle Rock Park. By the time I finished descending Ebbetts and checked my map, I knew it was hopeless – it was nearly 3:45pm, leaving me fifteen minutes to ride the 10 miles to Woodfords. So I turned in at the hotel in Markleeville (no bears this time!), and gave Mike a hug. My ride was over. I hadn’t finished all five passes, but I was insanely proud of myself nonetheless: I had ridden the hardest ride of my life, and still felt good enough to do another mountain. I had gotten caught by the time cuts, but I knew I could have finished, given an extra hour to make Woodfords.
The Markleeville Death Ride:
82.23 miles, 9:29:54, 12:30:00 total time on bike.
10,882 feet of climbing (at 5,000-8,800 feet of elevation!).
Avg speed: 8.6mph.