Thursday, August 1, 2013

My Big Wild Ride (Alaska 1200k), Part 2: Through the Dawn

It's me versus the Alaska Range!  Smart money's on the mountains.
(This is Part 2 of a triptych.  Part 1 is here.)

Sunday afternoon; it was nearly time!  For reasons likely related to sanctioning of the event, rollout was slated for the distinctly odd time of 11:59 p.m.  As it turns out, midnight starts for 1200k events aren't unusual.  The thinking seems to be that, if you have 90 hours (just under 4 days) to ride 1200k, it often makes sense to have a big first day -- say, around 400k.  Such a ride takes most riders about 20-21 hours, so a midnight start means hitting the first overnight stop at 8:00-9:00 p.m., which is sensible.  It also means that riders encounter their first bout with nighttime riding when they're fresh, as opposed to at the end of a very long day.  Still, the midnight start was not without cost; in my case, it meant I'd already have been awake for 15 hours by the time the ride started, which isn't the ideal way to start a long expedition.

ONE LITTLE INDIAN

As the afternoon turned to evening, a much bigger problem became apparent: my riding buddy Max, the one responsible for my registering for this event, wasn't feeling well.  At all.  It turns out his stomach had been revolting since the reindeer stew before embarking on the ferry ride in Whittier the previous afternoon.  Now, to be sure, randonneuring events are about overcoming adversity, and many's the rider who's pushed through stomach upset on the way to a successful ride.  And, given his encounter with a rock in the road two years ago in this event, it was borderline unthinkable that Max wouldn't toe the line.  It gutted me to contemplate.  But he'd had no appetite for 24 hours, wasn't keeping food down, and was feeling weak -- the last situation you want before setting out on a 750 mile ride.  I encouraged him to roll through to the first control, at mile 37, in order to give himself every chance to fight through it, but I knew we wouldn't even be having the discussion if he weren't in real trouble.

About dinnertime, Max made the decision: he was out.  At least, he wouldn't start with the group at midnight.  He decided instead to get a few hours' extra sleep and start late, and to attempt to reach the finish line on time despite an effective penalty of several hours.  If Max were himself, that would be entirely do-able.  Given the lingering uncertainty about his condition, though, I resolved to start at midnight and, if he were able to ride the next morning, to spend a long night at the first overnight control at mile 270.  We'd then ride the remaining 480-odd miles together, good to go.

My spirits buoyed by the hope that we'd found a way for Max to ride, I tucked into a pile of quesadillas for dinner.  I reflected that, in some ways, his delayed start plan made my upcoming day considerably more relaxed -- I could ride to the first control at as leisurely a pace as I liked, make friends, etc., since I'd have a full night's sleep there either way as he caught up.  For once I'd have no agenda except to use my camera as much as possible.

Then it was gametime.

READY, STEADY, GO!

With rollout at 11:59, Kevin rallied the troops at 11:00 for last-minute instructions and well-wishes.  Enthusiasm, nerves, and reflective piping were everywhere one looked.

An irreverent photo-bomber.
After a few words, we decamped to the parking lot for last-minute bike tweaks, clothing decisions, and mosquito swatting.  A local band had shown up and was doing its best to lend a carnival atmosphere to the proceedings.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

I spent my last moments agonizing over one last-minute decision to make: whether to take my rain jacket or instead to leave it in the bag that would be available at mile 270.  It would be nice to have as an insurance policy, but the night was warm (by Alaska standards), the forecast called for a 0% chance of rain overnight, and it was sufficiently bulky that it didn't fit comfortably into my trunk bag with everything else I was lugging.  I had a base layer, arm warmers, knee warmers, and long-fingered gloves; with a 10-mile climb coming up as soon as mile 18, I decided to relax my pack-rat paranoia this once and leave it behind.  A guy next to me joked that he'd pay me to carry it so as to avoid jinxing everyone, and we had a good laugh about it.  I mean, it's hard to be more certain of staying dry than with a zero-percent chance of rain, right? 

To be smart, or to stay in character... whichever shall I choose?
My decision made -- arm warmers only, with knee warmers in the trunk bag -- we lined up for a group photo.

Everybody say "gel"!
And I got my class picture taken.

Belt and suspenders!
Kevin gave us some last-minute instructions.

"Ok guys, you turn left and go 750 miles."
And then, as the clock struck, erm, 11:59, we were on our way!  Two quick lefts in the first 100 yards and then straight through the first overnight control 270 miles later.  Gotta love Alaskan cue sheets!  The whir of 100 bike tires in the twilight was mesmerizing.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

I happily sat toward the back of the peloton for the first few miles, watching the various light patterns flicker hither and yon, and then cruised on up to see the view off of the front.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

Eventually I was joined by Craig from New Zealand and, needless to say, Scott on his Cervelo.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

I couldn't believe how hard these guys were going.  We'd dropped the peloton all of five miles in, something I never intended, but the pavement was slick, the terrain was flat, and the air was crisp -- who was I to argue with making some progress?

Lighting up the night.
They call me The Streak!
Still... they were going awfully hard.  Scott was pulling like a freight train at fully 25 mph; I was having trouble just hanging onto his wheel, not a good sign 10 miles into a 750-miler.  I fought the good fight for another mile or two before deciding their soup was not for me, and I stopped to see what BWR 2013 looked like to any spectating bears.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

I was having so much fun goofing off with the camera that I barely noticed a key development: little bits of water landing on my glasses.  Meh, just mist, I reasoned; after all, zero-percent chance.  The roads were wet, but that was just from past rain, surely not current or future rain.  Nothing to see here, move along.

The climb up Thompson Pass, the biggest of the entire ride, greeted us early on.  It's a 10-mile, 2700-foot grind, not steep at any part but certainly enough to let you know it's there.  As we spun our way toward the summit, the wind picked up steadily until, toward the top, it was flat-out blowing -- 30 mph constant, gusting to unmentionable.  At the same time, we encountered eerie reflective poles that framed the windy pass like something out of Bladerunner.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

Any guesses what those poles are?  Not lights.  It turns out that they're for snowplows, to enable them to find the road.  I'm not much one for OMG, but OMG.

By then the effort of the climb had made me thoroughly sweaty, and over the previous hour, my front wheel had constantly been kicking up water that then blew back onto my jersey and arm warmers.  When I finally reached the top of the pass around 2:30 a.m., I made an unpleasant discovery: I was soaking wet, the wind was nearly blowing me sideways, the temperature was in the high 40s, and I was at the top of a mountain pass, in Alaska, at night, without a jacket.  Literally 1/4 mile to my left was a glacier, and directly in front of me was a 5-mile descent.  My arms were shaking uncontrollably, my teeth were clenched, and as I stopped to put on my knee warmers -- my bike blowing over in short order -- it occurred to me that the technical term for my situation was "completely screwed."  This was not at all the way I'd intended to start a 3-day ride; just then, it even clear how I'd make it 'til dawn.

As I cursed the darkness, out of nowhere, an image came to my mind that I hadn't thought of for 20 years: a line from Castlevania, a classic video game released for the Nintendo in the late 80s:

Apparently this lives in my brain somewhere.
That's the amazing thing about randonneuring: one moment you're stunned by the beauty of a mountaintop while bobbing around a paceline, and the next your frostbitten brain is kicking up video game imagery buried in rainy childhood days.   Psychotherapy, thy name is bicycle.

Nostalgia's great, but it wasn't going to get me off of the mountain without freezing solid.  I hurriedly got my control card initialed at the mountaintop control and then set off down an epic descent that, had it been a sunny afternoon, would have been utterly perfect.  As it was, though, I was just trying to keep my convulsing arms pointed forward as I blew down the mountain at 45 mph.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

Eventually, somehow, I reached the bottom -- shivering, stressed out, and already exhausted despite being merely 40 miles into a 750-mile journey.   In my 600k, the nighttime leg had been hypnotic, refreshing, and divine.  Now, though, every part of me begged to see dawn break.

THROUGH THE SUNRISE

Fortunately, in Alaska in July, dawn comes at about 4:30 a.m.  I'd manage to fight off the shivers by time trialing over a few miles of flat ground -- hardly a way to conserve energy, but I was desperate.   When the early solar rays broke through the clouds, though, my troubles were forgotten.  It was utterly spectacular, just an explosion of fire in the sky.

No words.
Surely this isn't real.
No.  No, no, no!
How could anyone ride past this?
Lest you think I'm making this up through photography tricks, here's proof otherwise.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

The parade of lights in the sky only continued.

Bits and bursts of brightness.
Clouds aflame.
The road ahead climbed straight into the dawn.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

And the nighttime rain, which had made life so miserable, offered amends with a spectacle.

That's a double!
...as the sun from the east broke on the hills to the west.

There's gold in them there hills!
Simply unbelievable.  And people ask why I do this sport?  I even saw a linx dash from the shoulder into the bushes as I rode past.

The morning views were salve for a damaged soul, but ultimately they didn't do much for my more immediate problem, i.e., exhaustion from being wet and bone-cold for hours overnight.  I limped into the second control, at Tonsina River Lodge (mile 83), at about 5:30 a.m.  I've learned a lot of crazy things in life so far, but one of the craziest is that apparently heaven looks like this:

*Rawr!*
Inside was a breakfast buffet the likes of which I've never seen on a bike ride or virtually anywhere else.  I was utterly famished and reasoned that my only hope of pulling myself together was to eat everything in sight, which I did.  Breakfast consisted of three rounds:  (1) A huge stack of pancakes with yogurt, orange juice, and coffee.  (2) A Belgian waffle plus a pile of scrambled eggs, hash browns, yogurt, a banana, and more orange juice and coffee.  (3)  Round 2 all over again.  It was utterly divine and may well have saved my ride.  I think if people hadn't started getting up to leave at some point, I'd still be at that roadhouse, hiding from the mean, cold world outside.

Eventually, though, I hauled my distended belly back over to my bike and clipped in for another crack at this thing.

Looking for a wheel to suck.
With the climb up Thompson Pass, rain, and nighttime chill out of the way, things just had to go better.  Right?  *crickets*

A MIGHTY WIND

I left Tonsina River Lodge determined to take more pictures and feel less sorry for myself.  Having spent a good while at the Lodge, I was somewhere in the middle of the now-dispersed field of riders, and I stayed there throughout the next 33-mile leg to the Hub of Alaska in Glennallen.  My natural traveling velocity was quicker than that of most other riders, but I was also acting like an obnoxious tourist, so I'd cruise by a few riders, then think "Lookee!!!" when I saw something stunning like this straight in front of us.

I'm glad the road turned.
Or perhaps like this, to the east:

And to your right you have... everything.
I'd immediately swerve onto the shoulder to pull out my camera.  The other riders would come cruising past me while I tried (and generally failed) to zoom using full-fingered gloves before the mosquito swarms descended, then I'd pass them again before stopping yet another time two minutes later when the sun broke through the clouds.

And there you have it.  Winner.  The end.  I'm goin' home!
Sometimes, though, it all worked out perfectly:

Gonna draft, gonna get photographed.  Dem's breaks!
In all, this was an amazingly beautiful stretch with consistently astonishing views of the mountains to the north and east.  There were a few long grades that bordered on being climbs, but these led to some flat-out bombing descents on the flip side:

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

My spirits buoyed by the magnificent views, by the time we reached the Glennallen control at mile 119, I was feeling almost human.  Indeed, in a fit of optimism, I donned my summertime gloves while I scarfed an energy bar or two.  Kevin advised us that, if we looked straight in front of us, i.e., to the north, we'd just be able to make out tiny snow-capped mountain peaks on the horizon.  I saw them; they appeared to be just past the end of the earth.  He then told us our overnight control (mile 270) was on the far side.  Apparently this is what he considered to be a morale booster.

Rolling out from Glennallen, we faced another 30-mile leg that should have been no big deal -- no climbs of note, just clicking off the miles.  Little did we realize that this seemingly straightforward spin would take us more than three hours, because we'd be plowing straight into a 20-30 mph gale ripping in the opposite directly from the way it had gone in the first iteration of the Big Wild Ride two years ago.  It was simply brutal; at times I nearly had to unclip because a particularly strong gust suddenly froze all forward progress.  I felt like Wile E Coyote when he realizes he's standing 10 feet off the edge of a cliff, briefly suspended in mid-air before plunging to his fate.

Making matters worse, this section contained periodic sections in which it seemed like the road had been paved with particularly jagged chunks of gravel for hundreds of yards at a time.  The first time we encountered this nonsense, it seemed like a road repair crew simply had failed to finish the job.  Twenty miles later, however, it was becoming a particularly bad recurring joke.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

Not having received any news on Max's progress -- cellphone reception was not even worth imagining -- I reasoned that I had nowhere particular to be, and that I therefore might as well sit in a paceline and get to know some of my brothers (and sisters) in arms.

Line up!!!  Line up!!!
I spoke with Carl and Julie about the High Country 1200k in Colorado, which sounded amazing, and Julie also gave me some details on the Sebring 12/24-hour race that I'll likely contest next spring.

During this time, I noticed that, with the sun very low in the sky to our east, the shadows were coming out to play.

Shadows on parade.
I even took a shadow selfie movie!


Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

Every now and then a couple of strong guys would break from the pack and spin ahead for a little while, and these breakout groups would be highlighted against backdrops that seemed straight off of a magazine cover.

It doesn't get much better.
When we finally reached the control at Sourdough (mile 152) around noon, most of us were pretty beaten up from the relentless wind and rough pavement.  This control was a mom-n-pop roadside restaurant that seemed to be the only commercial establishment for dozens of miles.  I plopped in a booth, ordered a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches and a Coke, plugged in my small mass of battery-powered devices (lights, computers, cameras, etc.) for recharging, and took off my shoes for some much-needed relaxing.

After about a dozen riders had amassed at the restaurant, a ride volunteer arrived with an announcement: apparently there was a section of road ahead of us that made the rough pavement we'd just traversed look like glass.  Indeed, it was so bad that the ride organizers were exploring whether to shuttle us around it.  In any case, we were asked to wait at the control for further instructions.

Ultimately, after about an hour at the control, a decision was made: the road was deemed passable for cyclists, but we'd have to proceed with utmost caution through the rough section.  In some ways this struck me as the worst of all possible outcomes, because we'd lost at least half an hour of ride time and we'd have to traverse this apparently treacherous stretch of road anyway.  But I understood the reasoning behind the delay -- the ride organizers were simply operating out of an abundance of caution with imperfect information -- and my sore feet, at least, had appreciated the enforced rest.

Once the announcement was made, antsy riders scrambled to their bikes and took off one by one, with none of the paceline organization that had characterized the previous stretch.  I found myself alone, with a couple of riders a few minutes in front of me and the rest hundreds of yards behind.  I decided to mosey along at my own pace for a little while and see how things went.

I THINK WE'RE ALONE NOW

Having ridden the first 152 miles with others, I suddenly found myself alone for the first time with 115 miles to go to the first overnight control in Delta Junction (mile 270).  I had no expectation for what the day's remaining three legs would bring; I knew only that we'd have to cross -- or, hopefully, circumnavigate -- the cluster of mountains that Kevin had noted back in Glennallen.  I settled into my aerobars and started to crank out the miles.

The first leg, a 38-miler from Sourdough to Paxson (mile 190), was pretty in its own right but alluded to more amazing things to come.  It was densely forested by trees of medium height that wouldn't have been out of place on the east coast, had some great rolling hills and quick descents, and was punctuated by majestic peaks in the distance.

The fireweed was in full bloom.
The mountains drew nearer.
There were outrageously great sweeping descents.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

What a road!
And views of mountain lakes aplenty.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

During this time, I passed Gavin and John, the two guys who'd left Sourdough before me; I was lead wheel!  Rah.

Britney's telling me I'm stronger than yesterday.
I blew through Paxson Lodge, at mile 190, in less than ten minutes, pausing only to refill the bottles, buy a Coke, and chat with Kevin and Greg about what the rest of the day might hold.

"Is this the overnight control?  Ok; can I sleep here anyway?"
Having covered 300k and started the day by being chilled to the core for hours, I was getting tired, but what I heard sounded promising.  If only I'd known; promising didn't begin to describe it.

The stretch of road from Paxson, at mile 190, to Black Rapids Lodge, at mile 231, was probably the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.  Photos and video don't begin to do it justice, because what can't be conveyed is the utterly massive scale of the terrain that awaits around every turn.

Just past Paxson, the trees parted into a panoramic vista of the mountains we'd soon reach.

Yeah, that'll do.  That'll do quite nicely.
 And then I reached the lakes.

Wow.
 And then the lake -- Summit Lake, which we traced for a better view of the glacier on the far side.

Surely this isn't Earth.  How can I possibly ride anywhere else after this?

A passing volunteer snapped my pic!

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

I made pretty poor time through this section, not because I was tired -- who could be in a place like this -- but because every quarter mile I'd stop for more pictures.  My jaw must have been hanging open for ten miles straight.

But it didn't end there.  Just past Summit Lake there was a vista with a distant view of the Alaska Pipeline snaking into the mountains, where it doubtless engaged in tomfoolery of some sort.

Tomfoolin' Pipeline.  And again, wow.
But the best might have been saved for last.  Already primed by the stunning views, I rounded a turn to see earthen mountains with colors like I'd never imagined.  Their size was indescribable.

Zoom in.  That white dot is a full-size RV!
That bright green speck is a large road sign.
Cruising past them, it was impossible to imagine being anywhere else just then.  How could I possibly be impressed by anything on my daily rides after this?

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

The road leading to Black Rocks Lodge meandered through a peaceful valley, with mountains framed by a river that was steel-gray due to the silt it carried.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

By the time I reached the Black Rocks Lodge at mile 231, the penultimate control of the day, my neck was limber from swiveling constantly.  Black Rocks Lodge itself looked completely great, and the food smelled amazing.  Had I not been eager to reach the overnight control, I could easily have sat for a thoroughly dignified dinner.  Granted, the other guests -- many of whom actually looked dignified, and not like roadkill held together by lycra -- might not have appreciated my continued presence, but I'd been shaken to my cynical core by the last few hours of riding.  Transporting.  Transcendental.  Divine.  I don't know; words are completely insufficient.

BRINGING IT HOME

Leaving Black Rocks, I had thirty-nine miles left to the first overnight control at Delta Junction.  I still hadn't heard anything from, or of, Max.  I hadn't had cell phone coverage at all during the day, so this wasn't entirely surprising, but my mind began to turn to some decisions I'd have to make in short order. If he was on the road, I faced a long overnight stay, perhaps 10-12 hours, which is inordinately long by randonneuring standards.  If, on the other hand, he hadn't started on his own or had started but been forced to abandon the chase, I'd have to decide how much sleep to get, which in turn would mean identifying some personal goals.

In the meantime, though, the trek to Delta Junction required conquering a couple of stiff climbs.  One, in particular, was about 2 miles long at an 8% grade, which is a considerable kicker at the end of a 270-mile day.  At the top, though, I was greeted by this scene.

Words fail.
And shortly past it, in another direction, a cloud underlined a peak like something out of an oil painting.

A world at peace.
Seeing a sign on the side of the road for a view of the Alaska Pipeline, I made a quick detour and found ready access as it snaked into the distance.

Apparently $5.62 is the target price for a gallon of gas.  You've been warned.
One creature that seemed not at all perturbed by the pipeline were the moose, which, despite their reputation for territoriality, wanted little to do with me.  They instead acted cartoonish and goofy.

Una meese!
And the best thing about Delta Junction?  It's located on a delta, i.e., down at water level.  Since I was on a mountaintop, getting there proved to be a rip-roaring good time.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

The descent fed me into a road that seemed at once infinitely long, straight, and flat; one couldn't draw a greater contrast with the recent passes.  But it was good for two things: making great time and admiring a sky with gossamer wisps and tendrils of clouds floating through the sky.

Just look at that sky!

As I coasted the final miles into Delta Junction, my mind awash with the day and my uncertainty about the upcoming night, my phone chirped.  Sure enough, it was a text from Max, doubtless sent many hours before, saying that he'd tried to ride but had made it only 50 miles before realizing that his system wouldn't let him go further.  He'd be meeting me at our hotel room in Delta Junction.

I pulled into the Delta Junction overnight control (mile 270) at around 9:30 p.m., 21.5 hours after our midnight roll-out.  It wasn't a particularly great time for 430k, but given my brush with hypothermia, the nasty headwinds, a 30-minute detention in Sourdough, my stopping to take pictures every other minute, and the fact that I was riding pretty easy for much of the day, I had no complaints.  The control was at a local high school; most would sleep on the gym floor on sleeping bags, but Max and I, being rapacious plutocrats, had opted for a hotel just down the road.

Woot!!!  (There it is)
I parked my bike, greeted the volunteers, who scrambled to heat up some moose lasagna, and shot Max a text message asking him to swing by the high school for a strategy session.  After we talked about his earlier attempt to ride, I raised the question how much sleep I ought to get that night.  No one else had arrived by that time, and I had no idea what others' plans might be.  Max and I originally had planned to finish the ride in about 72 hours, an agenda that assumed three 18-hour days with about four hours of sleep per night.   Due to the slightly overdistance first day, I was still within shouting distance of that plan, and I decided to go for it, even if, as was likely, it would mean riding the remaining 480 miles solo.  I was comfortable doing that, and part of me even welcomed the challenge.  It seemed to embody the randonneuring spirit.

After I wolfed down dinner -- Max couldn't eat -- we retreated to the hotel room, where Max rendered invaluable assistance in stripping lights, computers, and cameras off of my bike in order to charge them while I staggered into the shower.  I emerged around 10:45 and decided to set the alarms for 2:00 a.m., aiming for a 2:30 a.m. roll-out on Night 2.  That would give me about 3 hours of sleep and would set me up for a sub-72 finish if I could keep moving.  In the meantime, though, I collapsed into bed as visions of mountaintops danced my head.

What a day.



(The final part of the ride recap can be found here.)