Saturday, May 05, 2012

Taking the stage

My earliest memories of Southern California include a glass tank full of dolphins, evenly spaced palm trees dividing the street from the gleaming walls of glass skyscrapers, and a homeless man sleeping in a pile of dirty clothing on a manicured lawn. Now, some 25 years later, I admit this is what I see when I think of Southern Cali, and I still can't comprehend how mountains, forests, and vast tracts of desert could exist beside the urban finality of my memories.

When I signed on to ride the Stagecoach 400, it's because I saw an opportunity to immerse myself in part of California that I otherwise would likely never see. I could appreciate the big forests and open space of the north, the Sierras of the east, the cliff-lined coast, and my own comfortable perch between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the San Francisco Bay. But Southern California, in my mind, was the domain of glass buildings, bland deserts and marine life in tanks. And because I despise biases even when they're my own, I thought a 400-mile mountain bike tour would be a perfect exercise in shattering expectations.

The Stagecoach 400 route was the brainchild of Idyllwild frame-builder and bike-shop owner Brendan Collier and his wife, Mary. Mary finished the Tour Divide one year before me, in 2008, but now the two are parents and business owners and don't have as much time for extensive bike tours. Brendan wanted to create a route that he could get excited about, and I presume recruited friends and others in the region to add their own input. The result is a diverse range of landscapes and trails strung together so compactly that it would be difficult to believe they all exist in the same region if you weren't the one linking them up yourself. As fellow rider Katherine put it, "It's like having a local take you on a tour of all their favorite trails, for 400 miles." The Stagecoach 400 really is a cool route ... even if it turned out to be considerably more strenuous than I expected. But that's what you get, when you set out for an adventure purposefully ignorant of what's in store.

Thanks to my perceived lapse in fitness, I went into this race with few expectations. Because of this, I didn't feel my usual nervousness as I plowed through my pre-race routine in Idyllwild. I met up with Sharon and Michael, two cyclists from Anchorage who I know through the Alaska snow biking scene (Sharon won the Susitna 100 earlier this year.) I also had the opportunity to spend some time with Eszter Horanyi, who I really admire because she has the kind of talent I'd kill to have, and yet just quietly goes about her awesome mountain bike feats with humility and perspective. This was perhaps my favorite aspect of the Stagecoach 400 — all of the amazing women who lined up, including Mary, two-time Nome finisher Tracey Petervary, and Katherine, a good-humored Kiwi who was also conducting a shakedown for this year's Tour Divide. There were other women whose names I've forgotten, but the number was notable as what is likely the largest percentage of females to participate in a multiday bikepacking race.

The race started two and a half hours late because of last-minute delivery issues with the SPOT trackers, which Brendan managed well, given the stated lack of central organization in this race. (The Stagecoach was conducted in the usual self-supported style, meaning you look out for yourself and don't expect any support from the people who simply designed the route and set a date for a group ride.) There was another early snag when a landowner blocked most of the group from a gated road after the leaders went through. Brendan turned the rest of the peloton around and led us down a nearby singletrack trail. I always try to ride off the back at the beginning of these long races because I like to stop when I want to stop, but I don't want to impede others. However, too many stops early in the Stagecoach 400 resulted in a wrong turn that nearly separated me from the pack for good. Brendan was nice enough to wait up for us stragglers and point us in the direction of the original route. From then on, we were truly on our own.

I settled into a good rhythm, watching my little blue arrow creep along the purple line of my GPS. GPS has become my lifeline in endurance racing, to the point when I find it difficult to function without its trusty map images. This is actually one of my difficulties in ultrarunning races, which favor signed courses over electronic gizmos. I can navigate hundreds or even thousands of miles of unmarked trails just fine with my GPS, but put me on a course with a bunch of ribbons and I'm likely to wander around in bewildered circles.

We quickly descended out of the mountains and into the depths of the Anza Borrego desert. Every large dip in elevation increased the temperature noticeably. The day started in the low 70s at 6,000 feet in Idyllwild, and soon rose to the 90s in the exposed desert. I have another anti-strategic habit of carrying way, way too much water — but I was grateful for it on the first day. As long as I have plenty of liquid on my back, I feel calm about setting out toward these barren expanses — landscapes that otherwise intimidate me immensely.

The route followed the sandy bottom of a wash, which proved to be quite a technical obstacle thanks to soft piles of sand, breakable crust and boulders. I was feeling playful and tried to ride as much as I could, even though spinning out through the loose sand often proved to be slower than walking and at least twice as hard. I could see where most of the leaders had gotten through on the crust, and churned it up for the rest of us. My fault for starting off the back — not that I'd be able to hold anybody's wheel for long given all of the technical riding that was already scattered across the course. Still, I was excited just to be out for a long bike ride in new-to-me country. I could worry about how hard I was working when the time came, later.

The wash snaked through the wide canyon and suddenly dropped into a veritable jungle, a natural springs area known as Middle Willows. The transition was startling — from sun-baked rocks to a deep green oasis. The trail wound tightly through the willows and crashed through tall blades of grass beneath Sasquatch-like palm trees. Truly another world. I loved it — not because the riding was fun, although it was — but because I was fully immersed in this alien world, and it was nothing like the Southern California of my imagination.

Others had told me there was an awesome place to stop for burritos in Borrego Springs. But by the time I reached town, I was feeling ill from the heat and not in the mood for solid food. I stopped at a small store in the clubhouse of a ritzy golf course and bought an ice cream sandwich, two bottles of Gatorade and another gallon of water. The woman at the counter told me a story of one Stagecoach competitor who had already come in well-cooked and delirious, saying he had been out of water for "hours." "Tough way to start a race," I thought, and wondered how much farther he'd make it down this course. The sharp edge of the afternoon heat made me glad for my slower pace and water-hoarding ways.

The next section brought more interminable sand, which, like the technical riding in the wash, took away any of the ease or speed of losing elevation. I mashed my low gears and pined for my fat bike, hoping the combination of desert, beach, and rock-garden riding wouldn't make me wish I had brought the Fatback all along. I do love the Moots though; it's so comfortable it's almost like not even having a bicycle underneath me, and it was much lighter and easier to drag up the interminable hike-a-bikes to come.

Darkness descended as I turned away from the day's long drop and began the sandy climb up Fish Creek Wash. In the faint starlight I could see towering black shadows of canyon walls and realized that this must be a stunning place in the daytime. I considered stopping low in the canyon so I could view it better in daylight, but Friday's heat had already been stifling and it was supposed to be hotter on Saturday. I knew I needed to gain as much elevation as I could manage in the relative cool of night. I motored through the sand, wishing the miles could go by faster but glad I didn't feel worse than I did. I drifted into a pleasant daze until I saw a house-sized boulder that looked like a homey place to stop for the night. It was nearly 1 a.m., which shocked me, as I had little sense of time passing since the sun set. I had traveled 102 miles and, despite the rapid loss in elevation, still managed to climb 6,150 feet over the long day. It was a good target, but I originally expected to be further along after 14 hours on the trail. I rolled out my sleeping gear and laid on my back for seeming hours, gazing at stars. It didn't feel like I was ever fully unconscious during the fitful night. But I hoped I had managed sleep at some point, because I still wasn't certain I had the wherewithal to handle three more days of this.


  1. Jill, this is my absolute favorite part about your blog-- the narrative after these amazing rides. After a cross-country unsupported bike trip I sold my car and have been a committed bike commuter and runner for a decade; though I'm not a huge adventurer. I find inspiration in these stories to go out for longer runs and more circuitous commutes-ie if you can ride 102 miles in a day in the desert, I can probably survive a 3 miles run even after a 14 hour day at work...

  2. Thanks for sharing the photos! It makes like in the Upper Midwest look so bleak!

  3. Hi Jill,

    Enjoying your story and photos as always. Was fun to check your progress on spot over the weekend. I lived in San Diego about 20 years ago and would try to imagine what kind of scenery you were riding thru. Have been an avid reader of your blog since your Juneau days. Keep up the excellent work!



Feedback is always appreciated!