Friday, May 04, 2012

Endless climb: Stagecoach 400 intro

My water tasted like weak, rancid coffee, and was nearing throat-searing temperatures. I collected it from a hose at a fire station, where it probably sat for days absorbing heat and minerals. I had better water in a reserve bladder, but I was too paranoid about dying to dump out the fire hose water. If I sipped it slowly enough I could deceive my gag reflex into accepting it as hydration, but only barely. The unavoidable sun had already stifled my willingness to eat. I felt dizzy and strange.

I wanted to walk, take a break, take a nap, but I couldn't let myself do any of these things. The numbers weren't in my favor. I was down to three fig bars, two cookies, and some sunflower seeds. If I didn't make it to the Sunshine RV park before the market closed, I was going to either have to ride the last 25 mostly uphill miles after the RV park with no food, or I would have to pedal six miles off course to the town of Anza. I expected to take the second option, but neither was ideal. The reason I was so low on food again is because when I restocked at the last gas station at 10 p.m. the night before, I expected to pedal through here many hours earlier, and eat considerably less in the process. I should have known that the Stagecoach 400 wasn't going to give away any easy miles. Instead of pedaling up a wide valley on pavement, I had to cross these sandy mountains first.

I did the math. If I wanted to hit Sunshine Market by the reported 6 p.m. closing time, I would have to average a little over six miles per hour — which was, sadly, faster than my average had been all day. I had no idea how much climbing lay between me and the market, but I figured I might as well plan on "a lot" and give everything my depleted, sun-cooked muscles had to give to those climbs. My heart pounded into my throat, and the only thing I could do to ignore its desperate thumping was sing in my head — a Modest Mouse song I sometimes chant because it has a calming effect as well as a good cadence for three-mile-per-hour granny-gear pedal mashing.

A nice heart and a white suit and a baby blue sedan,
And I am doing the best that I can ...

I was doing the best that I could. I was giving everything I had to give, even if I believed that everything I had to give wasn't all that much. From the moment I cracked on Cache Mountain Divide in the White Mountains 100 a month ago, I've been struggling. I knew that going into the Stagecoach 400, knew that more rest or at least more mindful training might be the better option for long-term health and performance. Part of me really does care about all that, but another side — I might call it my more primal, instinctive side — needed to face the struggle head-on. "Oh, you need a little nap after your two-hour ride, do you? I'll show you."

Sad song, last dance, and no one knew who the band was,
And Henry, you danced like a wooden Indian ...

The course was harder than I imagined. I must have said it to Beat at least a half dozen times in grumpy 10 p.m. dinner-time phone calls. "This is really hard." He tried to reassure me that I was still moving okay, that I was in fifteenth position in the starting field of 42, that it must be hard for everyone. In those grumpy times, the idea that there were other people out here doing this ridiculous thing made me feel angry. Were they riding, struggling, and hike-a-biking for 18 hours a day just to make a hundred or so miles? Were they sleeping only three or four fitful hours even though they found beautiful campsites under the stars in the vast quiet of the desert? Were they still wearing the same chamois after three days until even regular wet wipe baths weren't enough to quell the revulsion of crawling into a clammy sleeping bag? Of course these questions were pointless because everyone was in the same pain cave. The leaders weren't sleeping at all, some riders had succumbed to dehydration and heat exhaustion, and one unfortunate guy was hit by a car (he's fine, but it ended his race.) Lots of people had major aches and minor injuries. I was lucky to get away with just being a little tired.

Except this one mattered and I felt it had a spirit
And I shot the story because I didn't hear it that way ...

I thought at the top of the climb I'd catch a glimpse of the Anza Valley and the distant San Jacinto Mountains, my final destination. But I was wrong. The crest only brought a view of another narrow valley, and beyond that, a steep ridge scarred by this same sandy road. I coasted to the tree-lined bottom of the Chihuahua Valley and began my Modest Mouse chant anew. Dizziness had abated, replaced with a strange out-of-body sensation, as though my head and torso were detached from my sweat-soaked limbs. A drunken buzz replaced the desperation in my pounding heart, and I welcomed this surge of heat-intoxicated energy. I believed I was climbing better than I had in all of the last 350 miles. Maybe I was finally over this hump, finally out of the slump — until I reached the next crest only to see ... another dip into a bowl, and beyond that, more climbing.

And it's hard to be a human being
And it's harder as anything else ...

Reality soaked in that this rolling terrain could go on for a while. I let the dream of the Sunshine Market slip away, and expected to find frustration in its place. Surprisingly, I didn't feel angry or discouraged. Those feelings had faded behind a primal fascination with the boulder-studded mountains surrounding me, and bemusement about the thing I was becoming. It was the kind of thing that wandered around convenience stores in a daze until instinct took over, and I found myself devouring Hostess cupcakes and frozen burritos without understanding why I chose those particular foods ... the kind of thing that sometimes gasped happily while pushing up 45-percent grades and other times threw silent temper tantrums on the same terrain, for no discernible reason. My face was permanently caked in dust and sunscreen paste, my lips were cracked and bleeding, and a broken rubber band was tied around the crusty knot that was once my hair. Last night, I screeched at a kangaroo mouse that darted in and out of my path — no words, just screeching. In the morning, I woke up to a spider crawling across my face and I didn't even care. I no longer felt like a human being and had a distinct sense that I was experiencing the rare sensation of what it was like to be anything else. It was hard — really hard — and yet, somehow, desirable.

I finished the Stagecoach 400 four days ago, and ever since haven't had the mental energy to piece together enough of the experience to write anything about it. There are of course more stories and photos and I'll add those in the coming days. But I thought I'd start with my favorite moment of the Stagecoach 400: The moment I raced alone on the California Riding and Hiking Trail in the intense heat of the afternoon, surrounded on both sides by rugged wilderness, and realized the thing I was racing — closing time at the Sunshine market — was probably futile. All I could see were a seemingly endless series of climbs, making the finish line seem impossibly far away. I was overheated, exhausted ... and really, truly happy. Go figure.


  1. Truly very awesome.

  2. I came across your writing last month and became fascinated with your spirit of determination and adventure. As a serious cyclist myself i am in awe of you and the other participants. My future has one of these rides penciled in! Thanks for the inspiration and taking the time to write so thoughtfully about your experiences.

  3. Fantastic, wonderful race. Congratulations, Jill. I am looking forward to hearing all about it.

  4. That sounds hard. I'm glad you lived!

  5. That sounds hard. I'm glad you lived!

  6. Been awaiting your account of the race...amazed by your living to defeat the elements and build yourself. I'm a coward to do it myself, so I come here to bask in your heroics. Thanks for telling your stories.

  7. Once again your adventures fuel my need to get off of the computer and go ride. After reading Be Brave.. I signed up for my first ultra endurance race (SM100). Posts like today's make me want to get out and train harder. Too bad I have to finish exams first. grr.

  8. Was following the race via the links you provided. Glad you feel well enough to give us a 'taster' of the adventure. I can't even begin to imagine how difficult that must have been.

    LOVE that last shot you posted btw...the Yucca in bloom w/ the sun came out amazing!

    I did a measly 3 hr ride today in Cheyenne Cyn (gasping for air almost as soon as I started...guess that's what a sea-level guy gets starting a ride at 6500'). But every time I get feeling like I'm toast, I think of YOUR ride and feel embarrassed. You are a goddess of suffering and yet enjoying the pain. I guess we all do that in various pain threshold just happens to be WAY WAY WAY WAY less than yours.

    I'll be anxiously awaiting more of the story!

  9. Great read. You write for the interested reader. Makes me want to do the Stagecoach. Thanks.

  10. Just reread this, so glad you kept your blog running. Gotta do this one again.


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