WARNING: This entry is EXTREMELY wordy!
As of Saturday at 7:38 pm, I can officially call myself a Randonneur. That was the time that I made the long awaited left turn into Major’s Coffee Shop, and finished the most painful, disgustingly difficult, and rewarding physical endeavor I have attempted thus far; The San Diego Randonneurs’ Kitchen Creek 200K brevet.
My ride ended just a few moments before of the ride’s final finisher. I my time of 12 hours 38 minutes was the second slowest of the day, which sounds pretty shoddy, except that nine out of the original 25 riders didn’t finish. In that light, I’m pretty happy with my time. Amazingly, I still had 52 minutes before the clock officially ran out!
I learned an awful lot on this ride, and experienced numerous ups and downs. At the end, my odometer read 126 miles with 11,000 feet of elevation gain. My previous longest ride (about 4 weeks previous) was a 92 mile ride with about 5,000 feet of climbing. What a difference the climbing makes! I did not have a solid appreciation for the amount of elevation gain I would face, and I certainly didn’t understand how my body would react to the effort.
I arrived at Major’s at 6:30am, and prepared for the ride. I signed in, received my brevet card, and awaited the riders’ meeting. A wide variety of bicycles started the day. Several folks rode carbon racing bikes (Specialized was the most prevalent brand). I counted a couple of Rivendells, a beautiful Boulder Bicycles Brevet model, a few Schwinns (one was a single speed!), and even a recumbent. My friend Esteban didn’t arrive until just before the heard departed, so I didn’t wait around to start the ride with his group. Instead I just headed up the road (which was pretty steep leaving Pine Valley) and was on my way.
The first 36 miles was a pretty quick series of ups and downs. I was feeling good, and trying to pace myself, knowing I had a long way to go, and a huge climb ahead of me. I found myself riding with Kelly and Dave, a couple of experienced randonneurs, who were moving at a good clip. Kelly was riding the single speed Schwinn Madison, and was maintaining a great pace. Turns out he’d ridden to Yuma and back the weekend previous, and was hit by a car only 3 days before this ride. And still he was riding powerfully. We got to chatting a bit, as the miles ticked by, and he asked me a question that bounced around in my brain for the rest of the day; “You’re not going out to hard are you?” I said, “I hope not,” and immediately became concerned that I was. This guy obviously had years of experience, and something told me he knew an overzealous newbie when he saw one.
Determined to pace myself, I let Kelly and Dave slip away on the final climb before the control in Jacumba. I took it easy, and arrived maybe a minute behind. I felt like I had a lot left, but was a bit worried about the effort I had already put into those first 36 miles. I still had 90 miles to go, including the 12 mile, 3,000 foot accent of Mt. Laguna. I took my time in Jacumba, filled up on water, bought an apple juice, and headed back out onto the rapidly warming road.
Having been a bit slow at the control, I allowed several folks to catch up to my quick start, and eventually met up with a gentleman named Kevin on the steep climb out of Jacumba. We rode along and chatted for a couple of miles when I realized my rear tire was getting soft. I decided to stop and put some more air in the tire, hoping to make it to some shade before having to replace the tube. Kevin went on ahead, and I stopped on the sun-drenched roadside to realize I had no idea how to operate my new pump. Idiotic, I know. Luckily, Jack and Kathy, on their tandem, were not far behind, and stopped to help. Jack had a great pump and got my tire up to 90 lbs. I was extremely grateful for their help, as they allowed me to get out of that miserably hot valley.
I continued on, climbing slowly up to Kitchen Creek Road, and decided eventually that I had to stop and fix the flat. I pulled over outside of Boulevard, a “town” consisting, more-or-less, of a plywood Mexican restaurant and a post office, where I found an abandoned building with a shady porch, and a rail at the perfect height for hanging my bike. While sitting there, I enjoyed a banana and almond butter sandwich, and watched a half dozen or so riders pass by on their way up the hill. I spent probably 15 minutes there fixing the flat, and figuring out how to work my pump. I managed to get about 50 lbs into the tire, but I was very worried because I was unable to find the cause of the leak. But I needed to get back on the road. I left my porch just as William was riding past on his recumbent. I’d never met him before, but knew of William from the sdbikecommuter.com forum. We exchanged hellos, and I was on my way out of the dessert.
The next 12 miles went fairly smoothly. My tire pressure seemed to be holding, and I was making good time. I was trying to conserve as much energy as possible for the daunting climb that lay ahead. I turned off of Old Hwy 80 onto Kitchen Creek Road and found a group of folks huddled around a red SUV under I-8. One of the many great volunteers, Will, was set up there with Gatorade, Water, apples, Ice, and V-8. He also had a floor pump, which I thought very fortunate. I topped my rear tire off at 90 lbs, refilled my water bottles, ate some food, and thought myself ready for the obstacle ahead- Mt. Laguna.
Kitchen Creek road doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a horrendous assent. From the very beginning the incline is intense, and the heat was beginning to be unbearable. The road starts going straight up, and doesn’t seem to stop for 12 miles. Sure, there are short sections where the asphalt is forced to dip between two hills, but there is no relief from the torturous climbing and unrelenting sun. By my admittedly hazy recollection, there was no shade for probably 8 miles or so, just black pavement and white rocks marking the climb, punctuated by views that would be stunning if you weren’t suffering from heat stroke induced tunnel vision.
A group of riders all started the climb more-or-less together after the watering station under the 8, and slowly made their way up the slope. My lowest gear seemed to not be low enough, and I was forced to go a bit faster than I would have liked just to keep the wheels turning. I ended up passing several folks in the first mile or two, which I knew would not bode well for me towards the top. So it was fitting that when I was already a bit over-geared, and hot, and intimidated by the mountain in front of me, I realized my rear tire was losing air again. It got softer and softer until I had to stop and pump it up. Admittedly, I didn’t mind the break, but I was worried about having to do this several times on my way up the climb. There didn’t appear to be any decent place to stop and fix the problem, and I was getting crampy, and coming to the realization that my water supply was not going to last to the top. About 5 miles into the assent I decided I couldn’t continue on a flat tire, so I found a large rock, took off my jersey and under layer, and got to fixing the tire.
This time I knew I had to figure out what was causing the flat, as I was down to my last tube. Thankfully, I always align the tire sidewall marking with the valve stem, so when I was finally able to detect the very small puncture in the tube, I was able to quickly localize the suspect area of the tire. Sure enough, after a bit of searching in the blinding sun, I discovered a very tiny shard of glass imbedded in the tread. It was so small that it hadn’t re-punctured the tube until I had topped off the pressure at the water station, just before starting the climb. I removed the glass, made sure there were no more nasty spurs, and put the bike back together.
By the time I got back to climbing I had been passed by pretty much every other rider. The heat was unrelenting, and I took off my helmet to help cool myself. The slight tailwind, which would have been welcome, was just slight enough that when pedaling at 6 mph the relative wind dropped to zero. After unsuccessfully trying to maintain my cadence I decided to walk whenever I couldn’t keep my speed above 5mph. I figured that walking allowed the use of different muscles, relieved some stress from my feet, and lowered my heart rate while losing little time. The fact that I was wearing soccer shoes (Adidas Sambas) made walking comfortable and easy. It would have been impossible in cleated cycling shoes. Another rider, Juan, was having similar problems, and he and I leap-frogged each other several times on our way up the mountain, a trend that would continue throughout the remainder of the ride.
Kitchen Creek Road would not end. I finally made it to tree level, and was out of water, and out of hope. I was exhausted. I was cramping badly. I was very worried about heat stress, but I knew that I was still ok, as I was sweating profusely. As long as you’re sweating, you’re ok, I figure! For the first, but not last, time that day I pulled over into the woods and laid down in the weeds and dirt. I stared up at the blue sky, and the trees, and enjoyed the slight breeze, and wondered if I would be able to actually make it all the way up to the Laguna control. I still had about 4 miles to go, and no water. I didn’t want to go back down Kitchen Creek, but I didn’t know if I could continue. I just lay there and relaxed. After deciding that I wasn’t going to die in the near future, I got back on the bike and continued.
As luck would have it, soon after starting back up, I came across some campers. They were extremely generous and gave me a bottle of cold water and allowed me to fill my bottles. I drank the entire bottle of cold water right there, thanked them profusely, and headed up the mountain with renewed confidence. I now knew I would make it to the control.
As I rode up to the Laguna Lodge, Esteban and his riding partners were heading back down Sunrise Highway, apparently done for the day. In retrospect, that would have been the intelligent decision for me to have made as well. Somehow, I convinced myself that the hard part was behind me, and the rest of this ride would be easy-breezy. I checked into the control only 8 minutes before it was supposed to close. I had no idea I was so close to being disqualified! I’d never looked at a clock, or at the time constraint. I was focused solely on getting up that damn mountain.
The volunteer at Laguna, Julie, had a great stock of Coke, ice, water, cookies, and apples. I ate and drank and sat in the shade. I spent half an hour on the cool porch, chatting with other riders, and enjoying the fact that I’d survived. I’d finished 72 miles of the ride, meaning I “only” had 53 miles or so left, and I convinced myself that, except for a little climb out of Julian, it was all downhill. I’m amazed by the tricks the human mind will play on itself.
The 24 miles to Wynola, just outside of Julian, went by pretty quickly. It was mostly downhill, with bits of steep climbing mixed in, just to remind me I was stupid for continuing. I made a wrong turn outside of Julian, and had to back-track a couple miles, uphill, to find my way to the Red Barn in Wynola. I left Laguna ahead of Juan, and Jack and Kathy’s tandem, but arrived in Wynola just behind them. I was spent. I was hungry, but no food was edible. I was sore, and my leg cramping was getting pretty tough to deal with on the climbs. My lower back was killing me, and my left hand was cramping. All-in-all, I was a mess. But I knew that there were only 30 miles, much of which was downhill, until I could call myself a randonneur.
Greg, volunteering at the Wynola control, gave me some electrolyte pills and a carb/electrolyte drink mix. The drink was incredible and the pills were incredibly helpful. I am convinced that without Greg’s help I would never have been able to will my way back to Pine Valley.
The last 30 miles were the most beautiful (Lake Cuyamaca is stunning!) and the most painful of the entire ride. My seat was very sore, my back ached beyond belief, and my legs were done. And the hills kept on being there! I took another break on the side of the road when I just couldn’t stand sitting on the bike another second. I cussed out loud multiple times when the pain became nearly unbearable. But I knew it was almost over. Just outside of Julian, as the road turned up, I put on my iPod. I never listen to music while riding and have been missing out. The music really lifted my spirits, and kept my focus off of the odometer. I watched deer bounding across the road and around the glens surrounding the lake. I watched the shadows creep across the valley as the sun began to set, and enjoyed the cooling dusk. My body was on its last thread, but my mind and spirits were at their peak.
After an exhilarating decent, the last small effort into Pine Valley seemed nearly flat. I cruised along, and passed Juan, the last rider on the road, about 5 miles before the finish. I was surprised when Major’s Coffee Shop appeared ahead on the left, and was overwhelmed with satisfaction. I don’t really know how I managed to finish. Luck, certainly. Stupidity also. I received some amazing support from the volunteers, and, besides the flat tire, had no issues with my bicycle. I pulled into Major’s and Greg signed my card and gave me a Coke. I completed the ride in 12 hours, 38 minutes – 52 minutes ahead of the requirement.
God bless you if you’ve actually read this entire thing. I know it’s way to long, and full of redundant sentences and nonsense. This is my first real ride report, so I just wanted to get everything out before the memory faded. I’ll post some lessons learned in the very near future. Until then, thanks for reading.