Monday, February 18, 2013

The best kind of bonk ride

I sought out Sunny Jim Trail primarily because I despise it so. There were a few seconds of weakness as I wavered at the crossing of Skyline Drive with its smooth and flat pavement, less than a mile to my next connector trail on Russian Ridge. And then there was Sunny Jim with its 600 feet of elevation gain in a half mile followed by a teeth-chattering descent. It's a mean, mean fire road, and to top it off, my blood sugar had plummeted off the edge of pleasantness. I had the h'anger. And even though there wasn't a single viable reason why I should take Sunny Jim over Skyline, I promised myself a fruit snack if I could pedal all the way to the crest without keeling over.

Sunny Jim's grades top 20 percent. It's a leg-buster on a good day, but riding it bonked after several thousand feet of climbing in the midst of a five-hour ride is another experience altogether. My legs filled with hot lead and my lungs seared in the sixty-degree air. My head spun but I couldn't dab, couldn't let my feet touch the dirt of sweet relief, no I would not. Every time I passed a trail sign pointing the way to a friendlier piece of singletrack where bikes are not allowed, I sneered at it. "I hate you Sunny Jim. I hate you so much." And then I couldn't breathe, so I couldn't speak, so I hated Sunny Jim in silence, with the fire of a thousand suns.

I mashed past a family of hikers who regarded me with unveiled concern. I was full-on wheezing at that point and I didn't care who could hear my gasps of desperation. Sunny Jim was destroying me, and I couldn't let that happen. Too steep to stand out of the saddle, almost steep enough to tip backward, I leaned into my handlebars and mashed with all of the sputtering power my h'anger could release. By the crest I was so dizzy I could no longer read the hateful trail sign, but I knew what that fluttering brown square meant. My backpack was tossed on the ground before I even got off the bike, and I ripped into the pack like a wolf, extracting all of its guts for the prize at the bottom. I devoured the small pack of fruit snacks in two bites, and ate another without deciding to, even though that was all the fruit snacks I had. (Whoops on forgetting to restock my backpack.)

Sugar rushed into my blood stream as I plummeted down the steep track — instant energy plus endorphins plus exhilaration exploded into a chemical reaction that is my secret solution for a most sublime level of bliss. All of my endurance experiments have taught me tricks for manipulating my physical reactions and emotions to both push through tough times and squeeze the most joy out of my experiences. I admit I suspected Sunny Jim would be fair payment for an incredible second half for the last trail ride I'll likely be able to squeeze in before I leave for Alaska.

I raced around my favorite Russian Ridge trails, taking in views like this. Somewhere in there my 160 calories of fruit snacks burned out. I was too blissed out to notice, but my head did start to feel fuzzy again, my gut noticeably hollow. No matter; it was time to turn toward home via my favorite descent in all of the region, Alpine Road. Alpine Road is actually a segment of trail that I believe was once a logging road, but in a couple of decades of MPOSD jurisdiction has overgrown and washed out to a fast and flowing singletrack that drops steeply into the Portola Valley. On Sunday, the trail was in hero dirt condition. Fuzzy endurance (or in this case, hungry) brain helps break up some of my more useless inhibitions, and I flew down the descent and hugged the tighter turns with a kind of instinctive confidence I can't easily access in stronger physical condition. Yay for stupid fun.

I don't often ride Alpine Road because it dumps me out near the I-280 corridor about fifteen miles from home. It often seems like too big of a busy pavement price to justify the ride. But on Sunday it seemed totally worth it, and I had just enough time to spin the big ring home before dark. However, I managed to take the wrong right turn off of Alpine and started climbing back into the Los Trancos Hills. It seemed not quite right, but I was certain, somehow, that this road connected back up to where I needed to be. I climbed as the road led up steeper and steeper grades, and still I continued climbing. Eventually I felt not well at all and then I hit a dead end. I switched my GPS screen to check my elevation and saw I had reached 1,400 feet. The freeway corridor is at 100 feet. I called Beat.

"I'm running late," I told him. "But it's because I'm lost. Can you tell me if, um, let's see, if Los Trancos Road connects back up with Page Mill?"

Beat looked up my location and informed me that I was essentially riding into a spiderweb of dead-end roads. "Are you sure this doesn't connect with Page Mill?" I insisted. "I left Alpine Road like a half hour ago and then I climbed a thousand feet. I don't want to go back."

He insisted that even if I found a magical connector trail that was not on the map, Page Mill would eventually lead me to nearly the same spot as Alpine Road, and I'd still have about the same distance to ride home. All of these complex concepts were just confusing me. I didn't have the energy to argue but I wasn't all that disappointed either. I launched into my accidental road descent that was actually a lot of fun. 36 mph.

I had to strap on my headlight and red blinky to pedal home but that was okay, too. The setting sun washed the sky in pink light and I felt peaceful and content, like I could keep pedaling forever, fruit snacks or none. 


  1. Are you ever afraid of coming across shady people in the woods? My trails take me deep into the woods and I find myself more worrying about people than animals.

  2. This article is a GREAT example of why I have been reading your blog for so long (and a sorry excuse for not having commented). This is not just a great story with the elements of honesty and the redemption of a good downhill, but your language is really on point today and I really appreciate the story you have crafted. Best of luck in Alaska!

  3. Wow...the things you do for fun! My fun-O-meter starts to peg out around the time you are getting into your groove. I was chuckling at your Sunny Jim description...done that one a few times on the way to Russian's a brute for sure. But you describe it PERFECTLY!

    Best of luck in AK to both of safe, and hope you both have GREAT adventures! there a tracking link for Beat's death-slog? I'd love to follow's so mind boggling what he's attempting (sorry about that word beat...I mean what he's DOING!)

  4. why do you try riding through the bonk?

  5. Were you still around for the snowfall on Skyline yesterday?

    The Suuny Jim trail is named after Sunny Jim Rolph who had the ranch where the Ranger station is at Skyline ridge osp. He was Mayor of SF for 19 years in the early 1900's and also Gov. of Cal. He got his nickname because he was always smiling and had a positive and generous manner. Here is some more interesting info about him:
    btw, he used to come up Alpine road to his ranch.

    I remember actually going up Alpine in the family auto back in the 60's when it was still open to vehicles.

    You should have taken Arastradero rd. off Alpine to get over to Page Mill. It's the next road down Alpine after Los Trancos.

  6. Tom C — once again, thanks for the background info. For the record I do not hate Sunny Jim in any way, but I remain not a big fan of the trail named after him. But it is, in its own way, beautifully punishing.

    I went for a run at Rancho San Antonio yesterday to about 1,800 feet elevation, but not high enough to see any snow. It was raining hard though, windy, and probably at that elevation in the high 30s.

    I did take Arastradero to Page Mill after I returned to Alpine. That was the wrong turn I made — forgot the name of the road I needed to take, thought Los Trancos sounded right. I was wrong.

  7. getting lost should be part of everyone's training regimin. Keep up the wondering spirit!

  8. Jill,
    I assume you took Joaquin off Alpine to get to Los Trancos trail? I ran Los trancos few times and it is a tough trail to run, it would be technical to ride (if it was open to bikes whcih it isn't ;-)) But theoretically, you could get to Page Mill Rd and then take the Adobe Creek Trail to Montebello Rd, ride over Black Mt and downhill home. Adobe Crk comes really close to Page Mill just east of the gate which leads to a private residence but is accessible to bikes. You can see that on the mrosd map The trail cannot be seen from the road and you have to cross some barbed wire, but it's there. Now Adobe Creek coming up would be a major brutal climb, way worse than Sunny Jim - I hope you try it when you are about to bonk next time.

  9. Not Joaquin — I had actually dropped all the way to Los Trancos Road. I was aiming for Arastedero and turned right about a half mile too soon. I've actually never even been to Los Trancos park because of its no-bikes policy. I was riding on a paved road (Viste Verde, I believe?) Looking at Google Maps, it seems like there are no connector trails between that neighborhood and the Los Trancos OSD.

    I think I rode Adobe Creek once ... that singletrack that skirts around Monte Bello Road? Haven't been back because I liked Bella Vista so much better.

    I'm interested in putting together a ~100 mile loop that hits up a good mix of (legal) trails and fireroads in the vicinity. I was hoping to incorporate all of these Skyline Parks along with Skeggs/Pescadero and Big Basin. I'll have to e-mail you sometime for ideas.


Feedback is always appreciated!