Monday, May 07, 2012

Urban jungle

 I woke up with my face in the gravel, cheek pressed into the moist dirt, and my first thought was, "smells like wet cement." I'm not sure where exactly the thought came from; the accumulating hours on the bike were slowly smothering my critical thinking abilities beneath a blanket of basic desires, irrelevant memories, and raw emotions. Now that the moment has passed, I couldn't even tell you what wet cement smells like to me. I guess it's something like a sandy hill above the suburbs of San Diego, enveloped in fog infused with salty hints of the sea. I could hear traffic humming from the distance, but all I could see in front of me was gray mist.

 My head was swimming, pleading for coffee. I had tossed out my chocolate-covered espresso beans the day before, after they melted into an unpalatable blob, so I had no refuge for my cravings. I don't know why I've gotten myself so addicted to this substance, but then again, I think most of our favorite things in life can be called addictions when you look at them from a critical point of view. I'm also addicted to quick-energy carbohydrates, petting my cat, spending time with Beat, and of course riding my bicycle. But on this morning I was not looking to feed that final addiction. I envisioned myself sitting on the couch with Beat and my cat, snarfing bowls of cereal, and drinking one of Beat's deeply satisfying cappuccinos. But no, thanks to bicycle addictions, I instead had to wake up alone with a face full of sand on this damp hill, with an unknown number of hard hours between me and coffee.

 Those early morning hours were rough. The trail out of the rolling hills beyond Bonita contained several more hopeless hike-a-bikes, on washed-out jeep roads that were carved down the center by erosion canyons deep enough to swallow a bicycle whole. I finally dropped out of the fog into a wealthy suburb that made me feel hopeful a Starbucks was near, but never saw an establishment before the route veered onto the singletrack along the Sweetwater River. The trails were fun riding and I tried to put myself into a better frame of mind — "Normally you'd be thrilled to ride buffed singletrack instead of lame suburban roads." But long hours overfeeding my bike addiction had reduced me to basic emotions and desires, and I only wanted pavement and coffee. The trail began to trace the shoreline of Sweetwater Reservoir. Again, fun trail — but if you've ever ridden around a reservoir, you probably know the strain of traversing a seemingly endless string of drainages on a rollercoaster of screaming descents and lung-busting climbs.

 The singletrack finally dumped me out on a gravel bike path along a busy street where the first business I saw was, oh joy, Starbucks! I ordered a venti drip (disappointed that they haven't yet begun to offer the quart-sized cups they've threatened to introduce) and pulled out my phone to call Beat. I saw it was 9:45 a.m., which means the first twenty miles of the day, losing elevation, had taken me just under four hours. Wow, was I setting this course on fire or what?

"There are still a lot of people behind you," Beat assured me. "You're doing well, really."

"It's just, man, why did they make this thing so hard?" I grumbled, and immediately laughed at my own dumb question. "They" didn't make it hard. I made it hard by pushing my own limits to the jagged edge just to remember what that felt like, and really that was the point. If it were easy it wouldn't hold the same interest, wouldn't feed the same addiction.

 Coffee also did wonders to improve my outlook, initially, and I made an effort to hustle myself out of Starbucks and get back on the concrete trail to San Diego Bay. The route was infused with more hidden gems of green-space singletrack, built on packed sand wending through a forest of palm trees or lining the banks of some hidden creek beside the freeways. These sections were clearly steeped in local knowledge and actually a bit difficult to navigate. It's hard to find a flow when you're stopping at every single intersection to assess which general direction you should be pedaling.

 Coffee, like Snickers Bars, only holds a fraction of its normal impact at bikepacking metabolisms, and by the time I reached downtown San Diego I could feel the clutches of the sleep monster closing around me. I was fighting for my consciousness, and the sensory bombardment of the city proved to be a bewildering distraction. "Green light ... Wait, does that mean stop or go? Wow, these buildings aren't nearly as sparkly as I remember them being. Texas barbecue ... what's that doing in California? Does that sound like something I want right now?"

Pedestrians flickered in the shadows of my peripheral vision, taxis rushed past me, palm leaves swayed in the breeze, and I took deep breaths with every pedal stroke, wondering if I could hold it together. I was drunk on my own fatigue and culture shock, and I was frustrated by how out-of-it I felt. This city after two hard days and 200 miles of desert — what a strange transition.

 In Ocean Beach I passed an organic grocery store. I didn't really require a stop and knew I needed to keep cranking to make the day's necessary miles. But the lure of healthy food was already too hard to resist. I went inside for lunch I didn't really feel hungry for, but still managed to scarf down an apple, a half pound of raspberries, an Odwalla smoothie, a spinach salad, and half of a ham sandwich. I also picked up some treats for later — natural fig bars, dried mangoes, whole-grain cookies, sunflower seeds, and Babybel cheese. Take that, horrific gas station diet. I still believe that, at bikepacking metabolisms, the actual source of food — beyond fat, carbohydrate and protein content — doesn't matter all that much. Hostess cupcakes are organic cookies are bananas are Sour Patch Kids (for the most part, give or take a few grams of fat.) But after a couple days go by and my body is sufficiently depleted of nutrients, fruit and vegetables become substantially more appealing than more usefully caloric junk. No matter what I eat, I still manage to drop an average of about a pound a day during these kinds of efforts. For me, that weight never stays off long. But if you're ever looking for a good crash diet, I highly recommend the "Eat What You Want And Still Lose Weight During Punishing Multi-Day Bikepacking Races" diet.

 As I wended around a strange clover-leaf that seemed to be purposefully taking us on a tour of the outskirts of Sea World, Katherine Wallace rode up beside me. Both of us were having trouble navigating these urban streets and trails, and I noticed we both seemed inclined to take the same wrong turns that I usually caught first because I can be GPS obsessive. It was fun to chat with someone else in the race, but Katherine's comfortable pace was about two notches above mine and after a few miles I could no longer hold her wheel. She would actually be the last Stagecoach 400 racer I'd see for the duration of the race. I was sad to see her go. It can get a little lonely out there, even in the urban jungle of San Diego.

 As the route re-entered the suburbs I found myself on more unique and fun open-space trails: River pathways, singletrack along a gorge, fast descending through a maze of "Tunnels" that was also impossible to navigate, equestrian trails in the canyons beneath multi-million-dollar homes. I was surprised just how closely all these trails can link up. It seemed like we'd leave one trail system and within a mile be on another. For all of the annoyances created by the sprawling nature of West Coast cities, at least one positive aspect would have to be the impressive amount of open space woven throughout the housing tracts. I can't imagine riding trail all the way out of, say, New York.

After the sun set, I turned on my lights to hit up yet another fun trail system, the singletrack around Lake Hodges. My headlamp had a wash-out effect on the beige dirt and similarly colored rocks, and I managed to slam head-on into a decently sized boulder that I didn't even see. The jolt turned the front wheel just as I flew sideways over the handlebars, landing hard on my right shoulder. The reason I'm not a proficient technical rider is because I've never learned how to take a crash well. Under the best circumstances, I take crashing too personally and get frustrated and upset. When I am exhausted and muddled and just trying to fight my way from one point to the next, my strung-out emotions interpret crashing as the absolute end of the world. My shoulder throbbed and I was devastated, lashing out, moaning, "I can't ride this. It's just too hard." Yes, I did throw a childish temper tantrum. I worked through it, but it cast a pall over the rest of my evening. After that, timidity took over and I soft pedaled the rest of the singletrack, convinced that my shoulder was injured and I would need to reassess whether I could continue with the race in the next town.

By the time I hit the 24-hour Chevron outside of Escondido, my shoulder felt better, and Hostess cupcakes and more coffee definitely helped. I decided to put in enough miles that night to pedal out of the cities and back into proper Forest Service Land to camp. Sleep Monster got its talons around me and I was lost in my haze, largely unaware of the miles slowly slipping behind me until I was back in my sleeping bag, face pressed into the grass, and the night was bewilderingly quiet. (Map from day three.


  1. So awesome. By the way, I require Skyline trail, maybe Marin Headlands on Monday and Ethiopian food one night? :-). Oh and good Chinese at some point.

  2. I'll second Danni ;-) Let you know when I'm in CA. After Divide Ride and countless Alaska rides this latest of desert, ocean, San Diego, freeways , railyards, multi million houses and sleeping like a vagrant is one I'll skip.

  3. You went to one of my favorite childhood places! OB People's Food. Used to go for tofu nuggets and fresh juice with my dad.

  4. I'm oddly intrigued by the "Eat what you want and still lose weight by self-inflicted bikepacking". I may be desparate (or crazy) enough to try it someday! And you are definitely right...the pounds NEVER stay off when once one returns to couch-lounging and cereal-snarfing.



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