Monday, May 07, 2012

Climbing to the end

 I've found it difficult to write my Stagecoach 400 trip report. All of the words seem to boil down to "I was really tired and rode my bike for a long time." During the race, my perspective was muddled by fatigue, which cast a sort of gray wash over my memories of the trip. I experienced beautiful moments, but not to the levels of intensity I expected. I rode fun trails, but not with the same zeal I normally would feel. And I did despair sometimes, over not much, really ... a sore shoulder, another steep hike-a-bike, a turn I couldn't find. This is just the truth; I wasn't super awesome during the Stagecoach 400. I was slightly broken, struggling, sometimes continuing only because there wasn't a viable way to stop. But when I managed to rein in these emotions, I felt surges of relief, even joy, because it really didn't matter. In the end I probably wouldn't have been much faster at a hundred percent. I might not have even been that much happier at a hundred percent. Life moves forward no matter where we stand, but as long as I keep moving with it, I'm satisfied.

Four days is not terribly long for a bikepacking trip, but it's just enough time to make the transition to a different way of existing. I wrote earlier about how these hard efforts can be dehumanizing, in a way. In this context, it's not a bad thing. The more I focus on the state of my body and my biological needs, the less think about abstract ideas and life outside the immediate present. I become more animal-like, driven mainly by migration and the prospect of food and water. My thoughts begin to register less as words and more as blunt reactions and emotions. This manifests in simple ways, like screeching at mice who won't get out of my way, or stopping to observe a dead snake with inexplicable fascination. In the night, I growled at a rabbit who hopped by my camp, and in the morning I woke up with a spider on my face and calmly flicked it away. Interacting with other humans becomes more disconcerting, and the patterns of civilization start to confuse me. At the same time, the wilderness becomes a more comfortable place and the quiet flow of the universe makes more sense. I enjoy embracing my inner animal, from time to time.

Although I enjoyed the urban adventure of San Diego, I was relieved to be back in National Forest lands. I hacked through walls of encroaching vegetation on an abandoned fire road and cut across a field into the Pamo Valley.  The mountains were fog-drenched and green, quite a shift from the desert only a few dozen miles to the east. I was doing one of my favorite things, which is climbing quiet forest roads high into the mountains, and tried to rally my tired legs for maximum enjoyment.

Soon the fog began to clear, the temperature shot up substantially, and the road just kept on climbing. Often the route lost several hundred feet of elevation into drainages only to resume its sluggish journey skyward. I neared the end of my water supply and collected some from a stream that I could drink through my filter. Extracting water from my filter is a chore, involving headache-inducing suction, so I took the first opportunity I saw for treated water — a fire station on the Indian Reservation near the top of the canyon. The garden hose was sitting in the sun, and even after I let it run for a minute the water was still hot. I filled my regular bladder and kept the stream water as a reserve. This day, like much of the trip, I'd ride most of the miles carrying more than a gallon of water.

After four hours of near-continuous climbing, I dropped out of the mountains near Lake Henshaw. Its dark blue surface made me wistful for cool, clear water — not the metallic fire water I was choking down. I also wanted to find a resupply business somewhere in the vicinity. After all, a highway crossed the valley and there was a decently sized town called Warner Springs. Although the cues didn't indicate services, I hoped to find something because my food supply was dwindling. When I stocked up at the Chevron the night before, I believed I was overfilling my supply. But that was before the animal side really took over and left me gnawing mindlessly on vast quantities of food. By the time morning came, much was gone and I couldn't even say where it went. And still I felt almost ravenously hungry, at this point trying to ration my calories because the next guaranteed resupply was still many hours away.

Sadly, Warner Springs only seemed to have one establishment — a golf club and store that seemed to be permanently out of business. I even tried casing the fire station for vending machines and didn't even find a water spigot. I knew I had enough food to last me five more hours, which is probably what it was going to take to get over this next 25-mile hump. But it was already 1 p.m., and the last resupply on the route reportedly closed at six. I was going to have to bust ass to make this next stretch and I wasn't sure I had it in me. My knee-jerk reaction was more despair, and in the midst of these raw emotions I wrote Beat a text admitting I was "scared" and was considering just riding the highway toward Idyllwild. Luckily I calmed down before I sent it and made a better plan — race for the RV park, and if I don't make it, I can always ride off route into Anza, which is certainly better than quitting the whole race over this. Beat even gave me suggestions for good establishments in Anza, and I left Warner Springs almost hoping I'd miss the cut-off so I could enjoy cold root beer and maybe even a chicken sandwich.

What followed was the endless climb over the Santa Rosa Mountains, the acceptance of my limitations, and a joyful if inexplicable surge of energy that reminded me, if briefly, what it was like to feel strong again. A blissful descent brought me into the Anza Valley and I cranked the high gears all the way to the Sunshine RV Park, only to arrive at 6:07 p.m. I expected to find the place closed, but discovered the store's summer hours kept it open until seven. I darted around the tiny room collecting new water, cookies, cheese, and something for dinner. The woman at the counter, Mrs. Singh, offered to microwave a burrito for me and also recommend these corn chips that turned out to be fiercely spicy, as well as a Choco Taco. She told me stories of the racers who came through before me — Jay Petervary who ate "all of the food in the store," and Katherine and the hotelers who rode through here together just a few hours earlier. She urged me not to ride in the dark, promising she'd find a nice spot in her RV park for me to camp. When I insisted I wanted to ride on, she gave me two packages of sour straw candy, free of charge, because "when you're riding you suck on these and they give you power." Mrs. Singh was a refreshing shot of human kindness on this lonely day, even if the chips she recommended nearly burned a hole in my stomach.

I'd love to say it was an easy 25-mile climb up to Idyllwild from there, but I hit one more snag less than ten miles from town when I tried to take the unmarked singletrack that we rode on the way out, presuming that this was the official course now. I found the trailhead but took a wrong turn about a mile up the hill. A mile later, the trail seemed to peter out in the bushes, but I remained convinced this was the right way. I crossed a stream that was much deeper than I remembered it being and pushed my bike up a steep rock-outcropping, which didn't seem right at all. At the top, a larger cliff confirmed that I had indeed hit a dead end. I panicked. Not in a "oh, I guess I have to backtrack now" kind of way, but in a "Oh crap, I'm going to die out here" kind of way. I was beyond processing the situation rationally. I picked my bike up and started sprinting toward the rock outcropping, and when I reached it, tried to half-run, half-leap down to the stream. Predictably, I lost control of my footing and slipped forward, nearly tumbling head over feet, but luckily threw my weight backward in time to land on my butt and slide the rest of the way down, dragging the bike behind me. I bashed my shin hard on the pedals somewhere in the process, and blood was streaming down my legs, but happily I was otherwise not worse for the wear. I backtracked and found a different trail, which proved to be the right one. The adrenaline surge kept me full-on sprinting all the way up the hill and onto the final forest road climb, until it wore off, and I completely bonked. The final three miles were devoid of pedaling. I walked when I couldn't coast. But I made it, somehow, just before midnight on Monday night.

Photo by Matt Slater
I was so tired. I signed in as the 18th finisher out of 42 starters, and probably about 25 to 28 finishers (a final list hasn't been posted yet.) Jay Petervary rode the whole course without sleep in 50 hours, and Eszter was the first woman finisher a mere six hours later. I finished in 3 days and 13.5 hours. The final stats on my GPS were 385 miles, somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 feet of climbing, moving time 57:44 at a moving average of 6.7 miles per hour. It's been a difficult experience to process, but the final take away for me is this: If I'm tired, and I just keep moving anyway, good things happen. (Map from day four)