Monday, July 22, 2019

Pedal-powered rotisserie

I was having second thoughts about the Summer Bear. This is my off season. I've been in injury recovery and haven't sharpened much of anything. Then I received the e-mail offering a few details about the still-secret course: 205 miles with 23,000 feet of climbing, made up of chunky unimproved Forest Service roads, lost singletrack, found singletrack, county roads, as little pavement as possible. "You might want to pick up a fishing license so you don’t have to pay astronomical fees if Search and Rescue needs to haul you out." .

.. Hmm, that sounds like a little more than the overnight holiday that I had in mind. 

The way I see it, there's suffering, and then there's summertime suffering. The latter cuts deep. If I'm going to haul my delicate lungs and reactive skin through the dust and bugs and blazing sun, I'm going to have to really want to see what's on the other side. Is the Summer Bear too much challenge to be a holiday, but not quite enough to justify the phlegmy cough and inevitable heat blisters? Of course, how can I pass up a chance to get on my bike and ride it through the mountains for an entire day (or possibly three?) 

Of course, I can't make a solid decision until I've tested my resolve on at least a couple more training rides. I planned two this week, day-long endeavors where I was out the door at 9 a.m. and didn't return until evening. An eight-hour-plus block of time does open up more possibilities. I've never pedaled to the Continental Divide from my doorstep, to start. So on Wednesday I set out for Rollins Pass.

Temperatures were already climbing into the high 80s when I set out at 9 a.m. A blow-dryer wind was cranking out of the west — steady 17 mph, gusting to 22. Pedaling mainly due west into this desiccating wind caused my throat to feel raw, and sweat to evaporate before it left my skin. My shirt was bone dry and felt like it had just been removed from a dryer. Dust and tiny rocks buffeted my face as my pedals moved in slow motion against this convection oven.

Grind, grind, grind. Three highly taxing hours passed before I even arrived at Moffatt Tunnel, where I normally start this hard ride. Rollins Pass is a beautiful and scenic route that I tend to attempt only once each summer. One year is just enough time to forget how tedious it can be — for 14 miles, the route climbs interminably on a railroad grade littered with babyhead boulders and minefields of loose rocks. I spend most of my time weaving through babyheads and trying to maintain traction on the loose stuff, so the rare smooth patches of dirt are almost jarring. The grade is so gentle that it doesn't look like it's climbing, so the 5-6 mph pace I can manage at my best effort becomes aggravating. I was surprised to see snowfields lingering in late July, but stepping off the vibration machine and punching my hot feet into the snow felt good.

The west wind amplified as I neared treeline. Sometimes I'd look up from the rock puzzle and notice the way the trees beside me lingered, as gusts obstructed any hint of forward motion. Beat and I had plans to meet up in town, so I had my tracker running so he could watch my progress. Near Needles Eye Tunnel, I received a text from him. "Looks like you're still way out there. Maybe I'll just go home." I looked at my watch. Six hours! It was after 3 p.m. At this rate, if I didn't turn around soon, I wasn't going to be home by dark.

Still, I had made all of this effort just to get to this point. I climbed above the tunnel and observed the final mile to the pass. The trestles were still blocked with piles of snow, and the upper bypass trail promised another hour-plus of mainly hiking to reach Rollins Pass and return. I decided to save the goal of pedaling from home all the way to the Divide for another day. Of course, I still managed to faff around for another half hour: hiking along the ridge, enjoying the cooling wind when I didn't have to pedal into it, and admiring James Peak.

The return trip took less than three hours, which surprised me, because there's still a bunch of climbing through the foothills to get home again. I'm a careful and slow downhiller, but with the west wind at my back, I almost didn't have a choice but to be a little speedy on the tediously bumpy descent of Rollins Pass. En route, I passed three Jeeps and a burly truck that were creeping down the road at well under 10 mph. 

Thursday was a gym day. I've been moving up weights each week in an effort to build strength, while continuing to do my physical therapy recovery exercises. The one-legged squats were going well, so I did sixty of them — 40 on my bad leg, 20 on my good. Of course, when I woke up on Friday, much of my body was wracked with DOMS. The quad muscles were particularly sore. I was having a tough time walking. Oh, yay, perfect for another long ride.

This day was even hotter than Wednesday — 91 degrees at home, 103 degrees in Boulder, and honestly didn't feel much cooler at 9,000 feet. There was less wind, but I wasn't even moving as well as I had two days earlier. It was hot, and something was just off about my body. Snacks caused vague nausea, so I had avoided eating. Perhaps I was just bonked. I took quiet but rough back roads to Tolland and started up the inferno of Mammoth Gulch with nearly four hours on my watch.

Strangely, this horrible climb was my favorite part of the day. For me, there is always a tipping point of ridiculousness where I think "gah, this really is the worst," and it fills my heart with a perverse sort of joy. Dark comedy. The rear wheel slipped constantly as a battled through dusty chunder up consistent 13-15-percent grades, sweat pouring down my face with such a painful amount of salt that both eyes were often clamped shut, and only the hot, hot sun for company. Not a soul was around. Not even mosquitos or flies. I almost hoped I'd be forced to pull over for a jeep, so I'd have an excuse to throw a foot down and walk to the remainder of the steep pitch (I admittedly did take a short break and snapped this selfie, but only after the grade lessened significantly. There's another nice view of James Peak. Hi James!)

Instead I arrived at the Upper Apex Valley, 10,500 feet, briefly happy and utterly spent. I'd have been overjoyed if the remainder of the ride was downhill, but that was far from the case. My route had five more crushing climbs — the first a tear-inducing bump to get out of the Apex Valley, the second a thousand feet of gain on busy pavement, the third forcing another thousand feet of rolling climbs through the gap on Gap Road, the fourth a dizzying grind above Highway 72 to avoid the road closure, and the fifth on the unholy rollers of washboard beside Gross Dam Reservoir. Also, there were a few more bumps to get home. All in all, this mere 66-mile ride had 9,200 feet of climbing.

Anyway, I felt unwell. Not necessarily nauseated anymore; I had gotten some food down, and I still had plenty of water. But I felt out of sorts. A little drunk might be one way to describe my state — lightheaded and woozy. Over the years I've fallen out of the habit of using electrolytes. I drink plain water and tend to snack on a variety of bars, and there wasn't much salt in the mix I had on this day. But I hadn't thought about that. Most of my hard efforts take place in cooler conditions, and I've become complacent about such things — "placebo effect" I'd quietly think when running friends raved about pickle juice. (Of course, when I tried pickle juice on a hot day, I thought it was the most delicious drink.) As I weaved and faltered on the steep climb up Peak to Peak Highway, I had finally convinced myself I could use salt. I pulled into the Gilpin store, the only potential resupply on my entire route. The place was mobbed — weekend holiday types in RVs and on motorcycles, stacked at least ten deep at the cashier line. I didn't have patience to wait, so I refilled my water bladder with ice and left.

The rest of the ride was just awful. I've had worse, of course, but this was a long commute on the struggle bus. The muscles in my shoulders and calves felt like they were pulsing. My quads hurt like hell. My head was spinning at times. The ice water wasn't really helping. I regretted not waiting at the store long enough to buy some Gatorade and jerky. And the sun just beat down, and beat down, and beat down. By the time I reached the climb out of Gross Dam, I genuinely wondered if I'd make it. The tires had almost no traction on the dusty washboard, and if engaged the necessary effort to power through the slippage, I felt alarmingly faint. A steady stream of Friday evening traffic barreled past me, stirring up dust clouds. Things were bad. Outside sucks. I'm going to spend the rest of the summer indoors, working out at the gym. Stick a fork in me, I am done baking.

When I finally arrived at home, I wobbled through the door and braced myself several times to plod up the stairs. Beat took one look at me, walked into the kitchen, and returned with two chewable salt tablets. I ate them, and similar to the pickle juice, they tasted like the most amazing flavorful substance I'd ingested all day. Fairly quickly, I began to feel better. It was still 90 degrees outside, and 84 inside the house. A few heat blisters had formed on the back of my hands, even though they'd been protected with sun gloves. My core temperature still felt too warm. So really, the only reason I had to feel better was the intake of electrolytes. Another valuable lesson learned, yet again.

My resolve to stay indoors until autumn had already melted away by the following morning at 6 a.m., when Beat was waking up for a run to James Peak. No way I had that in me, but a casual hike to Rogers Pass was sounding pretty good.

The hike was still much harder that it should have been. Shoulder and quad muscles still ached, I continued to feel woozy and wobbly, my knee brace chaffed badly beneath my hiking pants, and this trail is always steeper than I remember it being. But it was a gorgeous morning — a bright blue prelude to a dark and thundery afternoon. It was fun to see all of the wildflowers blooming on the tundra.

Even ptarmigans enjoy the view of James Peak. Hi James! I had quite a bit of FOMO not going for the peak on this day, but indeed I had barely settled down to enjoy my late morning snack when I saw Beat loping down the ridge, already back from the much-longer-than-it-looks climb. I was bummed to have to get up and leave. I could have stayed all day ... except for the dark clouds that billowed overhead as we descended, and the thunder that rumbled ominously nearby. We barely beat the downpour that pummeled the car for most of the drive home. The descent didn't even take two hours. It continues to amaze me how quickly mountain weather changes.

Blistering heat or terrifying thunderstorms. After my hapless training efforts, I feel even less confident about the Summer Bear. And yet, I'm more excited than ever. 


  1. Totally pulled into your story with all the visualization! :). So if you worked through the "rock puzzle" (very cool anology) and crushing your rehab,it seems that sorting out your "fueling" needs and getting a system that works for you is a last hurdle to smashing the doubt monster. What adventures lie on the other side.... :).

    Jeff C

  2. I, too, loved the imaging...a convection oven day, for sure. I never leave home for a long jaunt without plenty of Gatorade since I bonked while backpacking Mt. Rainier's Circumferential Trail...100 miles of either up or down innumerable, deep glacial water-shed ravines. Bobbie had packed some powdered Gatorade, mixed me up a quart, and voila...Totally revived! I need both the salt and the sugar, and now never leave home without it. BTW, the powdered form is lighter and easy to keep in your pack.
    Love how you torment your body...something not too many people understand these days.

  3. Jill - I have a food dehydrator and have been drying pickle chips. I always carry a bag of them along with other snacks in warm weather and snack on them for electrolyte replacement. Seems to have worked well in our recent East Coast heat wave.


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