Here is the video
Respect and compliancy seldom occupy the same space at the same time. On those rare occasions when they do; one or the other quickly departs. El Chefe had reminded me that the scope of the task demanded respect. The Leavenworth Fondo is comparable to the Winthrop Fondo. The Winthrop Fondo was the kind of thing you have trouble believing they let people do without a more vigorous screening process. More than once during the Winthrop Fondo I remember thinking: “They expect us to ride THIS??”
Despite the seriousness of the challenge that the Leavenworth Fondo would be I had planned to forgo the usual proven methodology of a decent nights’ sleep at a hotel close to the start and instead would depart early from a work obligation and drive to the start the morning of the event.
They say that bad decisions lead to great stories. As if to prove this point I have a great story. What sounded plausible in February turned out to be pretty tough. There was a lot of type two fun involved.
As the Leavenworth Fondo grew closer I started doing the math and reality smacked me right between the eyes. The drive to the starting line from my company retreat was longer than I thought it was. That meant I would be getting up earlier. The Fondo started at 8:00 instead of 9:00 like the others. Okay, an even earlier alarm would be required. The company dinner Saturday night would go later than I thought so I would get to bed much later than I had planned. The Fondo itself would have more climbing than I recalled and it would be about ten to twenty degrees hotter as well. I’m not well suited for riding in the heat. The perfect storm was brewing. Oh boy!
All of this swilled around in my head and in the days leading up to the weekend I started to get nervous. Had I grown complacent? Was I treating this event with the respect it deserved?
The Silver Bullet happened to be in the Methow last weekend and we had done a four and a half hour gravel ride. It hadn’t felt that hard but I had some really good times on some STRAVA segments on that ride. Things were hinting that I might be in pretty good shape. I was down a kilo or two as well. My training leading up to the event included weights, stairs, intervals, distance and rest and I was very pleased with my conditioning.
The stars were aligning. What could I do to mess this up? How about getting up at the same time others are going to bed and then driving for three and a half hours? The morning of the race routine I have perfected through trial and error over the past eleven years of racing was out the window as well.
Embarking on a ninety mile gravel ride with 9,000’ of climbing and temperatures expected to tickle ninety degrees is daunting enough without throwing in sleep deprivation and nutritional compromises.
My mind shot back to a mountaineering trip that was kicked off after an all-nighter when I was eighteen. Back then I was at the peak of both my physical abilities and my naiveté. Then I remembered that it was Scott who really struggled and that Chris and Richard and I had reached the summit. I began to think that maybe, just maybe I would be okay. Hope does spring eternal.
If ye are prepared ye shall not fear too much. I think it was Bill Murray who said that. I’m not sure, anyway, on to my story.
Approaching the challenge like a complex problem I came up with, and refined, what seemed like a plan.
The fateful weekend came and I got to bed as early as I could Saturday night and was glad sleep came quickly. The alarm also came quickly and I was jolted awake feeling my sleep had been less than ideal. I splashed some water on my face, dressed and kissed Hottie goodbye.
As I snuck out to the dark parking lot I could hear there were still people partying. I slipped into the war wagon and was off. It was dark. The moon was nearly full and was sinking into the water west of Semiahmoo. It was a beautiful sight. Not worth getting up at three for, but since I was up I enjoyed it. I felt tired. What did I expect? It wasn’t much past three in the freaking morning. “Don’t do the math,” I told myself.
I cranked up the music and picked up speed. The music that is on at three AM just isn’t what it used to be. In a few minutes I noticed the eastern sky was beginning to show light. It was now 3:44 AM. Time was the only thing between me and the starting line and every minute I saved would provide needed buffer to an overly aggressive plan. I emerged from the mountains into the Skagit Valley and over the Cascades the pre dawn light brought out the silhouette of the mountains hinting that the day would be special.
I turned east at Everett and found an open Starbucks just past five AM in Monroe. I indulged myself and put in two sugars. The coffee gave me an unwarranted sense of comfort as it provided some hint of my morning routine. I was slightly ahead of schedule and was stunned at how much that knowledge eased my psyche.
The towns along Highway 2 are even more unremarkable before six in the morning. I topped out at Stevens Pass with a bowl of grape nuts in hand and following a pause that refreshes at a rest stop I arrived in Leavenworth and found the Fondo starting area. It wasn’t quite seven and I was only mildly disoriented from lack of sleep. That lack of sleep reminded me I could make a mistake along the lines of forgetting to put on my helmet or the like. I tried to take it slow.
I got my bike ready and put my drop bag in the designated box. I paused a moment and closed my eyes and pretended to power nap. I took the time to convince myself I was rested and ready to go. Better to be in shape and tired than out of shape and fresh. My teammates showed up and soon the lack of sleep was forgotten.
After an unusually stern pre race warning/instructions/lecture from Jake, we got underway.
We rolled out and I had trouble settling in. We were going faster than I wanted. This would be a long day and the first hour and a half is all uphill so there wasn’t any need to hurry. Similar to Goldendale we stayed together all the way to the gravel. I kept thinking I shouldn’t be within a hundred yards of McWoodie thirty minutes in. On the gravel the field spread out quickly. The grade was fairly steady and I watched my heart rate settle in at 170. I would have liked it lower but I wanted to catch Big John, the Wizard of Coz and El Chefe, and it felt like a pace I could hold all day so I just kept at it.
The road had a bunch of switchbacks and as I climbed I could hear, then see, riders below. The climb would top out three thousand feet above our starting point and I began watching my Garmin to see how close I was to the top. I watched the last two hundred meters tick by and then the climb topped out. The road snaked back and forth and as much as I wanted to relax I felt inclined to keep up a reasonable effort and soon I was zipping back and forth. It reminded me of a dirt version of the east side of Mercer Island.
Almost imperceptibly the grade went from flat to slightly downhill then to steep downhill. The surface went from smooth dirt to light gravel to lumpy rocks and finally rocky washboard. There were ruts that had to be avoided or jumped. Riders were going down this steep stuff at five miles per hour and twenty five miles per hour and everything in between. I was closer to the twenty five side of the spectrum though more than a couple guys flew past me.
One rider on a flat bar bike passed on my left on a particularly rough downhill. As he tried to get in front of me and then onto my line he couldn’t stop his left to right traverse and was grabbing the brakes as he rapidly approached the ditch. I was watching my lane in the gravel and once he was clear of it I kept my eyes looking at where I was headed. HE was on his own. Just as he was leaving my peripheral vision I could see he was sticking out a leg to serve as an outrigger for what would be something between an awkward stop and a crash. I do not know what transpired next.
The descent was littered with ejected water bottles. I even saw one where the top had blown off. I must have seen between ten and twenty lonely bottles on this descent and I would speculate there were less than a hundred riders in front of me which would mean a double digit bottle loss rate.
Finally the grade settled in at about a 3% downhill and the surface also became more palatable and I was able to relax and let it fly. With little warning the gravel ended and I was at the first water stop. I refilled a bottle and poured in some Skratch labs powder and I was riding again. Total stop time was less than two minutes.
The road soon turned uphill and the climbing resumed. I felt slow and it felt hot. I unzipped and drank and settled in. The grade was not as steep as the first climb and soon I was in an excellent rhythm. I was sweating now and it was cooling me off and I began passing people. There was a fair bit of sand and it sapped our speed and strength as you would expect.
I found myself working at the back of a group of three near the top. They seemed like roadies and the rough terrain challenged them. We topped out and I passed them one by one on a dusty rutted descent. I found myself jumping ruts as the road dropped toward farmland.
I had a super positive feeling as I had finished two of the three climbs and still felt pretty good.
When the terrain allowed I was aggressively drinking and soon I was on the final rocky descent to a valley I had ridden with Hottie as part of the Wenatchee century many years ago. We were now close to Lake Chelan. Once I hit the pavement I pointed my trusty bike toward the Columbia and cranked. I had cooled down on the descent and it took a while for me to get a sweat going and be comfortable. Along the Columbia it was hot and there was a headwind. Jake thought of everything. I rode alone to the food stop 51 miles in.
I was feeling okay and as I set my bike down one of the helpers took my bottles to fill them with water while I found my drop bag. I refilled my gel flask and stuffed some shot bloks in my pockets. I restocked my mini nuun tube and then mixed my potion into my bottles. I took a handful of Endurolytes (electrolytes) and swigged them down. I found Big John and Coz and John was chomping some cookies. They looked good and I grabbed one from the table. This was a deviation from my plan, but I just love cookies.
Big John and the Wizard were about ready to go and the three of us departed. I realized that El Chefe must have been behind me but I suspected I would be battling cramps later on so I expected he would soon catch us.
After a couple miles we caught a ride on a paceline and took it most of the remaining eight miles to the turn. After ten hot dry miles we turned up Swakane canyon road. It was rocky, dusty hot and dry. This wasn’t Ephrata in the rain. I didn’t expect any hypothermia issues today.
As I made my way up the dusty road I could see Big John’s orange helmet and the Wizard just behind him. Coz had bonked at Goldendale and we had ridden together and now he was dropping back to return the favor. I felt a twinge in my left adductor muscle as I approached Coz and told him I would be okay and that he should ride the climb like the wind. He tucked in behind me and soon we were picking off riders as the climb up the valley began to take its toll.
On paper the climb looked like a steady 5%. In reality it was a series of kickers that ranged from eight to twenty percent. These steep sections were loose and dusty and rutted. Climbing them took not only power, but more bike handling finesse than a guy should have to muster five hours in to a bad dream. Stand up and you spin out. Sit down and you have to fight not to stall. These stair steps were separated by really sandy sections where you could neither build speed nor recover.
On one of the early sections a rider in front of me couldn’t stay on the high ground between the deep wheel ruts and he stalled and fell to the side Laugh-In style. He only hurt his pride, but it foretold the seriousness of the climb. Riding this with fresh legs would be a challenge. Riding with five hours of climbing in our legs was purgatory.
There were patches of shade now and again that didn’t really cool you, but just served to remind you how hot it was in the sun. The filtered sun of the morning was gone and now a merciless yellow orb was blazing down on us. I caught Big John and turned to comment to Coz only to find it wasn’t Coz who had been behind me but some interloper who had been wheel sucking for fifteen minutes. Where was Coz?
Coz was in fact, bonked, barfed and heading back.
John and I stopped at an unmanned water drop and filled bottles. I dropped a nuun tablet in his water and told him I was cramping and had to ride on my own rather than try and match someone else’s pace. We departed and I fought my way up a long loose pile of dust that served as the road here and continued the fight alone. Big John was riding his steel commuter that must weigh forty pounds. He is a beast.
The climb was an epidemic of cramps and blown riders. Racers would ride then cramp and get off and walk up the steep parts. We were leapfrogging each other. A rider would pass me only to cramp and I would pass them either standing or walking. Then they would pass me and we would repeat the cycle.
At one point I was on a steep section and I approached a rider who was stopped on the side of the road stretching. The loose surface demanded my attention yet out of the corner of my eye I could see he turned toward me. I listened for a comment, encouragement or smart ass remark. His silence told me he must have recognized that I was in the pain cave and he held his tongue out of respect. There was suffering, oh yes, there was lots of suffering.
Similarly the words of encouragement were now few and far between. We were all in our own private battles and anyone who wasn’t you was irrelevant to your situation. I would like to think that if someone was hurt we would all have stopped but I’m not sure we would even notice if it wasn’t in our path. The only sounds were creaking bikes, crunching gravel and heavy breathing.
The single cookie that had looked and tasted so good was rebelling in my gut and while not debilitating, it was a distraction I did not need. Lesson learned. Stick to your food plan. Just because Big John can eat that and then get on the bike doesn’t mean I can. The queasy stomach meant I didn’t have a lot of gel or shot bloks as my appetite was gone. I kept drinking and supplemented my powders with nuun just to be safe.
Both adductors were now cramping as was my right hamstring. The cramps would come and go and if I tried to keep a smooth pedal stroke I could keep rolling through the cramps. At times I felt a sensation like someone was touching my leg which was an indication the cramps were about to resume.
The final thousand feet combined the good news of more shade with the bad news of even steeper sections. Some riders were walking these steep parts just because they were too spent and the road too steep to stay upright. These were inclines that would be hard to ride even fifteen minutes into a ride. It reminded me of the old rider describing a hard climb, “Then when I was on the steepest part of the climb I came around the corner and it got even steeper!”
At 113km (or 76 miles into our 90 mile festival) I came to the final water station. I filled one bottle and topped off another. There were only three more miles of climbing. Maybe I should have skipped the water and just pressed on? In five minutes I had completely consumed one of the bottles. The other would be gone before the finish line. Quinn’s water pack looked pretty smart about now.
My jersey was unzipped and I looked down at my black bibshorts and noticed they had white crusty salt deposits. After the ride my helmet straps would look as if they had been painted with baking soda. I was a chemistry experiment in motion.
What no longer mattered was distance or heart rate or time. The only thing that mattered now was elevation. I watched my Garmin and knew we had less than 150 meters of climbing left. Like some evil video game where the reward for conquering a given level is a harder challenge the final climbs were now even steeper. By now I was the only one within sight not walking and I was cramping but somehow able to keep pedaling. My cadence was in the thirties and forties in a 34/32 climbing gear. I was at my limit for this day. There were times my riding was only marginally faster than walking. I kept at it. I didn’t know what else to do.
A road sign unintentionally marked the highpoint of the climb and I zipped up my jersey and headed toward the promised land of the finish line. As fun as this was……………I just wanted to be done.
Similar to the first descent the road at first was very gradually downhill and then became rougher and steeper. There was a wonderful section of switchbacks on gritty gravel and my tires just railed it. I felt total control with the discs and a couple times I was stunned I was taking the corners as fast as I was but my traction was akin to riding on sandpaper.
My cramping had let up and my legs just felt tired. They felt really tired.
Finally there was a long straight run in and the welcome sight of pavement. As much as I like it when the pavement ends, it is pretty sweet when it starts again. Less than ten kilometers to the finish and I would be done. I was baked. We were now heading back on the same road that had taken us out from the start. I tried to pedal harder and that just didn’t happen. I had one speed and that was it.
At the start of the day we were all jacked up and the temperature was low so the grade of the road had seemed mild. Now on the descent I realized the road was steep. I was so glad we were going down this steep thing and that the climbing was done. I switched modes on my Garmin and watched the last couple kilometers tick down. I crossed the line with an on-bike time just under seven hours. Even with my cramps I was pleased with the time.
I was still a couple miles from the parking lot where we started and the war wagon was waiting. My right pedal had been clicking and I noted the grease seal was blown. With about a mile to go I started feeling more and more pressure as if the pedal didn’t want to turn. I figured if I was feeling localized pressure through my freakishly stiff carbon soles something was wrong.
I unclipped and rode the last mile with just my left leg. It was still a slight downhill so it wasn’t too bad. Then as I turned into the parking lot I tried to keep going on the slight uphill. Jake, the race organizer, presented me with a finisher patch just as my left hamstring cramped from the one legged pedaling. I winced as he handed me the patch. I looked at my car fifty feet away. I wondered how I would get there.
I got off my bike and limped to the war wagon and began the long journey back to normalcy.
I washed off and put on some clean(er) clothes. I drank and drank and drank. I foraged for food and ate what I could find. McWoodie, Mr. T and Coz all congratulated me. Big John and El Chefe rolled in and all had been accounted for. We went to the post race meal which consisted of brats, salty chips and water. Maybe that wasn’t the typically prescribed meal, but it was welcomed and wonderful nonetheless. We licked the salt from our fingers. We needed sodium.
This was a hard day for the men in orange and all of us fought cramps and more than one had tossed their salad.
The day had combined type one and type two fun. While there had been suffering there had been enjoyment, beauty and camaraderie. This ride was one of the few “A” events I focus on during the year. I was pleased with my ride.
One after another each of the men in orange independently described the ride as hard. What was interesting was that nobody used words like “hellish, miserable, torture” or any words that could be interpreted to mean that any one of us wished they hadn’t done it. I didn’t hear anything along the lines of, “Never again!”
It is hard to describe this to a bystander why we do this and have it make sense. We all got pretty much what we expected. We are all better men for having gotten dirty this day. We are closer as friends and know a bit more about ourselves than we did last week. Hard things are good for us.