Sunday, May 06, 2012

When the days get long

I woke up to the sound of bicycle tires grinding on sand, so I knew I must have slept a little. I hadn't set an alarm as part of my "let my body do what it needs to do" strategy, and almost felt disappointed when I realized the sky was still cast in pre-dawn violet. It was 5:45 a.m. and my mind was struggling to find the surface in a sea of grogginess. "Oh well. No use in laying around any longer." I packed up camp as color started to creep through the shadows on the eastern rim of the canyon. I was nearly 3,000 feet higher and it was still spring in this part of the desert — shades of green dotted by a bright palette of yellow wildflowers, cream yucca blossoms, and crimson Ocotillo.

I ate a robust breakfast of two flattened Snicker's Bars, having forgotten the day before that chocolate can't survive in the desert. I figured I needed to dispatch of them before they liquefied once again. Having neglected to eat "dinner" the night before, I was surprised how much more spring I had in my step after the Snicker's Bars. Still, as I commenced climbing through the sand, I was disappointed to see speeds in the three-miles-per-hour range. Was I pedaling this slowly last night? Probably, I thought grumpily.

I didn't have much time to be grumpy as the route soon lifted onto one of those famed Southern California 4x4 roads, the Pinyon Drop. The rutted, more-vertical-than-not hike-a-bike would be tough any day, but on this morning I struggled to find the strength I needed to continue basic forward motion. I felt like a vehicle with a faulty clutch. When I tried to engage the high gears, they slipped and I faltered. Gasping didn't feed enough oxygen to my racing heart, but I already had the bike perched precariously on a ledge above me so taking breaks or slowing down wasn't an option. There were several pitches like this and every one felt like a barbell loaded with one plate too many. I'd stand at the bottom, taking rapid breaths like a powerlifter trying to psych myself up, and charge up the hill in an all-out effort to push to the top before it crushed me. Good intervals for getting a lazy body back in shape — but not so good for a long endurance effort amid an already depleted physical state. This wasn't really "letting my body do what it needs to do," but at the same time I didn't have a choice. It was both refreshing (in a "yeah, cleared it!" kind of way) and discouraging (in a, "this race is going to take me a year" kind of way.)

It did feel satisfying to arrive at the top in still-cool morning air, head swimming happily through the endorphin surge and a half-bonked haze. My body had entered the hard end of living, and even two whole Snicker's Bars weren't going to go very far any longer. I pedaled in a drunken stupor and gazed over the Borrego valley, saturated in golden haze that accentuated just how far below it was now.

The jeep road took a dramatic turn downhill as it approached Highway S-2, the remnants of the Overland Stage Route of 1849. It's always fun to travel through historic areas that you know haven't changed all the much in an century and a half. And cycling on these sandy roads really give one a sense of what these stagecoach passengers jostled across in search of elusive fortunes. Today travelers are just looking for quick thrills — or slow punishments.

I arrived at the Stagecoach Trail Store just before 8 a.m., lucky to find the owner opened early specifically for Stagecoach 400 racers, as the place usually doesn't open until 9. I stumbled around the aisles, casing the place for any kind of coffee maker. Beyond that, I hadn't really thought about what I wanted to buy. I figured I would "let my body get what it wants to get." Turns out that was frozen egg and sausage burrito, a package of Hostess cupcakes, and one of those giant cans of Arizona fruit punch. Now, I utilize junk food as much as any amateur endurance athlete, but even I have my standards. All of these foods dip well below these standards. The place had bananas, and I didn't even give those a second glance. When left to its own devices, my instinctive side invariably veers toward all kinds of food my logical side has deemed disgusting. I find this amusing, and maybe a little telling. I usually feel great after I eat this garbage, until a few days go by and I can think of nothing but vegetables and fruit.

As I shopped for resupplies, a large contingent of Stagecoachers trickled in — Brendan and Mary, their friend Carter, a couple from San Diego, and two other guys. None of us were in any particular hurry to start pedaling again, so we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and talked about the previous day's adventures. Part of the fun of participating in these types of events is meeting the other weirdos who share this strange desire to go out and beat themselves up on a bike for days on end. Everyone seemed so normal while sitting at picnic tables in the morning sun, devouring donuts and yogurt.

Still, there was little time to be social, as we all understood we had to make a break for Oriflamme Canyon before the sun really started cranking. Oriflamme Canyon was the ramp that would take us from the low-lying desert to the crest of the Laguna Mountains. Its name sounds like a brand of wood-burning stove, and its steep walls feel like one. Hurt, hurt, hurt. The couple from San Diego admirably struggled to ride up the steep, loose road in the crushing heat. I gave up early but shadowed them consistently at walking speeds. Still, even the hike was brutal. I again couldn't find my high gears and soon began to see plenty of flowers and vistas to take pictures of during needed "camera" breaks.

The reward for climbing Oriflamme were alpine meadows in the Lagunas. I say alpine although the elevation was only about 5,000 feet, and the climate zone for pine trees was actually still a thousand feet higher. But this terrain had the look and feel of a high mountain meadow, and was wonderful to ride through.

A short section traversed by a flowing ribbon of singletrack nearly made up for all of the heart-bursting effort of the early morning.

We crossed onto the California Riding and Hiking Trail, and the only part of this region I've seen before. This trail serves as part of the course in the San Diego 100, where I paced Beat for 40 miles last June. I remember thinking some of these trails would be way more fun to ride than run, and promising myself I'd come back with my bike. The context under which I'd returned amused me.

I dipped back into my pain cave on the hot climb up the Sunrise Highway, and the cave only deepened after I topped out at 5,500 feet and began the steep descent into Noble Canyon. The early part of the trail flowed but it quickly turned chunky, and then extra chunky. I'm not a good chunk rider even in the best of circumstances, and these were far from the best, given the heat, my fatigue, and the fact I was riding a fairly-new-to-me bike loaded with touring gear. Sections of trail were rideable for me, but after I while I grew tired of crawling off my bike every hundred yards and relented to hiking the whole thing, even the easier parts. Downhill hike-a-biking over boulders is strenuous, and after four or so miles I was the most irritable that I'd be during the entire Stagecoach 400. It was unfortunate that I spent much of this time chatting with a local mountain biker, who would ride a few hundred yards at not terribly fast descending speeds and then wait for me to catch up so he could ask more questions. It was fascinating to watch him ride and realize that at least some people don't just bomb down technical trail, but ride it so deliberately that their pace is almost confusingly slow (as in, why bother?) But I get that chunk riding is fun for people. I admit it has never done much for me and I doubt I'll ever develop enough interest to really learn. Anyway, the local rider was pleasant to chat with but toward the end he insisted that I couldn't get to Alpine via the supposed direction I was heading, and I needed to take this and that shortcut. When I told him I couldn't shortcut the course no matter what, he argued that his way was better, and I should either just race the thing or do what I want (I presume he said this because I was hiking a mountain bike downhill, so I obviously wasn't racing.) Anyway, he was nice, just inquisitive, and I wonder now if I my annoyance with him stemmed from how grumpy I was at the time.

Still, I was annoyed with this guy because I believed he questioned my "racing," so I was happy with the trail split off in another direction after he'd already ridden ahead. The trail immediately turned up this crazy steep chip seal road. I spent so much of the morning hiking that I already had blisters, so I engaged my highest possible non-slipping gear to ride this climb. As I was mashing the pedals, two guys from the Stagecoach 400 motored up beside me. They weren't carrying any bikepacking gear, so I assumed correctly that these were the "hotelers" — fast guys who were touring the course by cranking hard for a hundred or so miles every day and spending longer nights in high-end hotels. A great way to ride this course, really. I approve.

"Awesome riding," one said to me.

"Who me?" I replied and laughed. If only they had seen me on the Noble Canyon Trail.

"Yeah," the other guy said. "We're about to give up and walk."

"Let's do that now," the first said, and they dismounted their bikes and began walking as I drifted ahead of them. I admit it felt good to climb, well, anything faster than the hotelers, so I pressed a little harder on my unreliable accelerator. I may have even beat them to the top of the climb if my GPS battery hadn't died, but I wasn't about to let that thing blank out for a second. They were riding again when they passed, and that was the last I'd see of the hotelers.

After that was more exhausting singletrack, a wicked fun descent out of the mountains, a steep rolling fire road, more descent, and finally I reached the town of Alpine right at sunset. After stopping for dinner and a small restock, I strongly considered staying in town. Somehow I let Beat talk me into continuing for a few more hours after I called him. (Honestly, I don't remember what he said to me if anything. I only know that I blamed him in my mind for coaxing me out of Alpine after I reached a horrendous hike-a-bike right at the end of the night. Sorry, Beat. I don't think you deserved the blame.)

I was so tired. I guess that goes without saying, but it's more difficult to describe the subtle ways in which fatigue accumulates alongside hours of effort. One minute I was inexplicably giddy, and the next I watched crazy-eyed rabbits dart toward my front wheel. I'm not certain these rabbits were real. It was only about ... oh, it was midnight again. The couple from San Diego had told me I'd probably find a good spot to camp at the top of "the hike-a-bike." I lifted my bike over a cement barrier and saw yet another near-vertical wall of a dirt road. I'm not even sure how I managed to keep the bike from rolling back down the hill due to my own inertia, but I think I pushed that climb at a rate of about 0.5 miles per hour — meaning I think it took me an hour to climb it. It probably wasn't that long, but it felt that long. I found a nice flat spot at the top to collapse and unrolled my bivy in record time. I was lucky at the time not to know that I was on an Indian reservation where the tribe didn't take too kindly to trespassing bikers and had already threatened a few who were caught trying to access this part of the course earlier in the day. I say I was lucky I didn't know, because I was going to sleep well tonight. (Map from day two.)
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.

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.