Thursday, August 1, 2013

My Big Wild Ride (Alaska 1200k), Part 3: The Great Beyond

Gutting it out through Denali after midnight on Night 3.
(This is Part 3 -- the final part -- of a triptych.  Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here.)

FAST TRAIN TO FAIRBANKS

Seemingly as soon as I crawled into bed, Max was telling me it was time to get up.   It struck me that his directive must violate the Geneva Convention; I'd slept for a mere three hours after riding 270 miles and here he was, telling me to rise and suck it up at 2:00 in the morning.  Cutting in his favor were two inconvenient facts: (1) A malevolent entity possessing my body apparently had requested this; and (2) He also was up at 2:00, and he wasn't even riding.  That made whining difficult, not that I didn't give it a go.

Another thing: the alarm that I'd tried to set showed no interest in going off, then or anytime soon.  I'm not sure what I'd been up to the evening before, but it sure as heck didn't involve competence.

I reasoned that, if I could somehow just get myself dressed and onto the bike, the rest would work itself out.  With Max's help, I got my various gadgets and doodads unplugged and set up once more on the bike, and I downed a Luna Bar with a cup of coffee before stuffing my aching feet back into my shoes and staggering out to the parking lot.  With a deep sigh, I was on my way at exactly 2:30, right on plan.

My name is Tron.  James Tron.
Cruising through the sleepy streets of early-morning Delta Junction, I realized that what I'd been told was quite evident: the further north one goes, the earlier it gets light, and the lighter it is.  Whereas sunrise in Valdez hadn't been until 4:30 a.m. or so, in Delta Junction, even at 2:30 a.m., I almost could have gone without lights.  It was calm and peaceful.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

After fifteen minutes or so of light spinning, I felt surprisingly good -- the three hours of sleep had done a lot more to refresh me than I'd ever have imagined.  The morning's project was to make it to Fairbanks, which, about 100 miles away, represented both the northernmost point of the arch-shaped route and the halfway point of the journey.

As I rolled toward the day's first control point at Midway Lodge, the terrain changed noticeably.  No longer was the road picking its way through mountain passes, but instead it was cruising along lightly rolling taiga, with a forest of scrubby trees on all sides.  The view to the left, i.e., the south, was something to behold:

Ever seen a mountain touch the sky so literally?
Sunrise came about an hour into the ride, sometime just before 4:00 a.m.  And, as with the first day, it provided a show not to be missed.  In some cases it was simply haunting.

The sky's textures were like something from a sci-fi movie.
Morning rays highlighting a jagged peak.
As the world became brighter, the road -- which I'd now been on for nearly 300 miles -- offered a terrific roller-coaster of rollers.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

And the rising sun continued its effort to stop me in my tracks every couple of minutes.

Sunlight bursting through the morning gloom.
I'm not a religious man, but if I were...
Around 5:45 a.m. -- which, given the early light, felt more like breakfast time -- I arrived at Midway Lodge (mile 314), the day's first control.  It was 48 miles and about 3 hours into the day's ride, and though it was still cool out, I wanted to top off my bottles before the upcoming 50-mile leg to Fairbanks.  Unfortunately, the lodge was closed, and nothing but the mosquitoes was a-stirrin'.  I checked the phone number for the lodge on my cue sheet, but naturally there was no cell phone reception.  This was a bit of a conundrum as, beyond water, I also needed my control card to be signed.  So, after stalking around the place for a couple of minutes in a manner that would have been of great interest to any police officers looking to make a quota, I decided to take a picture of my bike at the control and roll on to brighter pastures.

I was cleanin' up on this ride!  *chuckle*
I figured Kevin wouldn't give me too tough of a time about not getting my card signed; after all, apparently there's only one road in central Alaska, so I hardly could have cut the course.  The water issue was of more concern.  Nothing was open this early, and I was staring at a century on tired legs with only two bottles of water.  The world seemed to apologize for my plight with a few more amazing descents where all I could do was grin stupidly.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

About 70 miles into the day, with 30 miles to go to Fairbanks, I more or less gave up on my hope for water and instead concentrated on making good time.  Fortunately, this part of the course made that very possible: the terrain flattened out and the scenery took mercy on my camera battery.  The mission was to bomb along the shoulder of a highway, and with smooth, clean pavement, it was straight out of the aerobar playbook.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

At mile 346, I came upon an incredible sight.

Isn't it amazing?
Actually, nothing about the mile marker itself was impressive; instead, it's what it represented: after starting on this road near mile 0, the cue sheet actually required us to take an exit.  We'd been on the same road for 346 miles.  Incredible.  Of course, after a zig and zag, two miles later we got right back on the road once more.

Right about this time, unfortunately, the going got rough.  We were still consigned to the same shoulder of the same road, but as Fairbanks approached the shoulder became strewn with rocks and debris.  For awhile, at least, there was to be no more magical mountain fantasyland.  Instead, it was a parade of Subaru-wielding commuters and shredded tires.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

As much of a minefield as the shoulder was, at least it kept me off of the increasingly busy road; we cyclists had it to ourselves.  Except:

Awesome.
Eventually, though, at about 9:30 a.m., I reached Fairbanks, the northernmost tip of the route and, at mile 370, approximately the halfway point as well.  It was a massive mental boost because, for the first time, the distance remaining was a known quantity: 600k.  I'd ridden that distance three weeks before, and though it had hurt, it was at least conceivable.  It's always dangerous to think too far ahead on rides this long because the reality is simply too crushing, but it was a huge comfort at least to be in known territory, and to be turning back south.  From this point, as the crow flies, each mile would take me closer to the finish line.

Another consideration began to percolate through my brain: after breakfast at the control in Fairbanks, I'd have only 110 miles or so to the second overnight control in Healy.  At this rate I'd reach it long before nighttime; should I sleep early?  For how long?  Or... possibly... could I ride straight through it?

Such weighty philosophical matters were best considered over breakfast.  Fortunately, Fairbanks had a wealth of fine dining opportunities.

I'll have the waffles, thanks.
The Fairbanks control (mile 370) was at a Safeway that, happily for our protagonist, had both a full-service cafe and a Starbucks.  I parked my bike in sight and colonized a table in the cafe, taking my shoes off to reveal one reason for my aching feet: my small toes looked like they were dislocated or badly broken.  Each was bent in half at an unnaturally acute angle and twisted away from my other toes so that it jutted out of the side of my foot like a spike.  I started to become somewhat concerned that finishing the ride might leave me unable to walk and perhaps in need of foot surgery, not the ideal recipe for someone racing an Ironman in September.

After submitting my breakfast order -- a sub, chips, cookie, Coke, and about eight espressos from Starbucks -- I headed to the restroom, where I encountered this curious warning:

Full disclosure!  (So to speak.)
Having finally refueled and filled my bottles, I put my shoes/torture devices back on and mounted the noble steed once more.  The jaunt out of Fairbanks, toward the Parks Highway, broke things up by taking us on a lovely morning spin along a bike path.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

HOOFING IT TO HEALY

110 miles to the overnight in Healy, after already having ridden 100!  My gallon of espresso had me buzzing along and feeling pretty invincible.  I'd been told that this section -- west of Fairbanks, and north of Denali -- was notoriously slow, with lots of grinding hills, but I felt ready for it.  In fact, I felt better than I had at the start of the ride.   Part of it was doubtless crossing the symbolic threshold at the halfway point, but I was also thrilled that I'd actually pulled off a night of 3 hours' sleep and emerged on the other side able to function.  I knew the euphoria wouldn't last, but call it a cyclist's high; it's incredible while it's with you.  Maybe I'd be strong enough to ride straight through Healy after all.

Leaving Fairbanks, the route picks up the Parks Highway, which it follows almost all the way back south to Anchorage.  It's a spectacular road; in the northernmost miles, it feels very much like Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia, with long, gradual climbs and open descents that foster disdain for brakes.

YOU CAN'T SPELL "RANDONNEUR" WITHOUT "A RUNNER"

About an hour past Fairbanks, just as I was settling into my mid-day groove, I noticed that I felt a bit bouncy.  Pep was one thing, but this was rather too much literal bouncing.  One thing that cycling generally does not involve is vertical movement relative to the pavement, and it's almost always a bad sign.  I pulled off to the side of the road and, sure enough, my rear tire had deflated to a fraction of its normal pressure.  This was a pretty big surprise.  Flats in general are common enough, but flats on the kind of tires I'd been riding -- a very wide tubeless model -- were virtually unheard of.  They even have sealant in them that effectively patches small punctures.  In a year and a half of riding tubeless tires, I'd had exactly zero flats.  So much for that streak!

I pulled out my tire levers, dropped them in the grass next to my tire, and went to work.  My first line of defense was a can of Hutchinson Fast Air, which is a mixture of compressed gas and latex sealant.  Ideally it would patch my hole permanently and inflate my tire in one fell swoop.  Unfortunately, when I started the flow, foam started leaking from a centimeter-long slit on the sidewall of the tire.  It looked like road debris had somehow jabbed a hole right in the side.

Le slit in le sidewall.
The foaming gradually diminished to the point that the hole might have sealed.  It was hard to tell.  After inspecting it for a minute and inflating the tire further with my hand pump, I decided to ride it a couple of miles to see whether it was holding pressure.

I hopped back on my bike somewhat gingerly and set off down the road, cruising down a lovely grade for a little under two miles, at which point I dismounted again for a tire quality check.  It failed miserably; the tire was deflating further by the moment.  That was annoying, but at least my course was clear: put a regular tube in the tire and be on my way.  I had two of them, so that was no problem.   I deflated my tire to zero pressure, removed it from the dropouts, reached for my tire levers, and...

Oh, crap.  No, no, no!  Argh!

My tire levers weren't there.  I double- and triple-checked, but no dice.  With a sinking feeling, I realized I didn't remember picking them up when I left my last repair attempt a couple of miles back up the hill I'd just descended.  That was just outstanding.  Seeing no other option, I pulled my bike off of the shoulder, took a deep breath, and set out on a 30-minute jog/aggressive hike up the hill back to my tire levers.  Oh, the humanity.  I quickly learned that jogging in cycling shoes is profitable for neither cyclist nor shoe.  At least I was wearing mountain bike shoes, but even so, it felt like running on concrete slabs stuck to my feet.  What made it all the worse was the knowledge that that, for every step I schlepped, I'd have to make the return trip as well.  This wasn't how I'd planned to spend my vacation!

After several false dawns when I thought I'd reached the right spot, I finally made it back to my pile of foaming sealant and the two 3" pieces of plastic that had caused so much grief.  (Thank goodness they were still there.)  In yet another instance that vindicates my standing policy of not covering myself in tattoos, I managed to convince an elderly man at a gas station to drive me back to my bike.  At that point, of course, I had to go about actually changing my tire, which I hadn't managed to do in the previous hour of ineptitude.

Doing what I should have done in the first place.
Because life works this way, just as I started in on my tire change for the second time, the photographers arrived in good cheer and remarked how they thought I'd be further along by then.  *Facepalm!*  But it was great to see friendly faces after riding alone for 10 hours so far that day, and they plied me with some sort of overly caffeinated energy drink to raise my spirits.

At least my hair stayed in place.
As I wrestled with my tire, annoyed with myself for losing an hour due to carelessness, I made a snap decision to do everything I could to ride straight through the second night.  On one hand, this made no sense at all: even though my tiredness likely had contributed to my spacing out and leaving my tire levers on the ground, I decided to retaliate against the setback by riding the final 488 miles without stopping.  In retrospect, this perhaps wasn't the most reasonable way to approach the issue.  On the other hand, nothing about this sport is reasonable, exactly; it's all about motivation, and at the moment I was pretty darn motivated and feeling strong, so I wanted to channel that state the best I could.

Having decided in my mind to ride straight through, I took the leap of sharing the plan with the photographers.  Of course, this ran the considerable risk of my talking a big game that I wouldn't be able to play, but I wanted them to know for their planning purposes; they had a lot of ground to cover, given the spread-out field of riders.  I also wanted as many people as possible to know because I thought it would help me actually pull it off.  I've found that riding long distances gets geometrically harder the closer one gets to the finish line, be it an overnight stop or the end of a ride.  Once I'm almost there, each mile seems to take twice as long as the one previous.  I didn't want that to happen; I didn't want to think of the second overnight control, in Healy, as anything more than a place to shower, grab a bite to eat, and prepare for the night ahead.  I reasoned that the more people knew of the plan, the more my mind would come to accept it as the way it is.  "Fake it 'til you make it," you might say.

At long last I rolled out again to take on the hills, buoyed by the knowledge that Denali loomed just around the corner.  Well, just around many, many corners.  Just past the photographers, Max and his parents caught up to me in their car, which they were driving along the route on a sightseeing/volunteering trip.  I told him of my plan to ride through, and he promised to meet me at the overnight controls to offer moral support and a seat to sleep on should the need arise.  With that, off I went!

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

The final 30 miles of the 54-mile segment to Nenana was just as billed: there were countless long climbs, some of them steeper than I'd have liked.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

But, at least on this course, what goes up must come down:

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

And the brilliant blue sky made for a cheerful afternoon.

Larger than life!
Each effort provided its own quick reward, and it was hard to get enough of these descents.  There were times when I could just pin my ears back, turn the music up, and blow down the backsides of mountains without a care in the world.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

On a couple of occasions, the photographers used their truck as a chase vehicle, blinkers and all, which allowed me to make use of the road in a way I'd have been hesitant to do otherwise.  Just before Nenana, there was a neat moment when, upon crossing a bridge, Max and I took video of one another:

My perspective (Max is on the left after the bridge):

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

Max's:

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

I finally reached the Nenana control at mile 424 in the early afternoon; it was hard to believe I'd already ridden 150 miles since waking up that morning.  I was also 50 miles into a personal distance record for a single ride.

Nenana!   The faster you say it, the more fun it is.
I was beginning to get a little tired; the afternoon was hot and dry, and slogging up long grades for hours had taken a bit of a toll.  I was also uncertain how I'd manage to keep riding given the worsening problems with my small toes being relocated against my wishes.  On the whole, though, I remained in good spirits; I had only 38 miles to go to Healy, where a warm shower and fresh pair of clothes awaited me.  The volunteers said that they thought the next group of riders was a couple of hours back and moving along well.

The 38 miles to Healy didn't sound like far, and in the grand scheme of the ride, it wasn't an arduous leg.  Having said that, compared to the otherworldly beauty throughout much of the ride, this stretch had nothing whatever going for it.  The region seemed to be between places but nowhere itself.  The road was infinitely long and straight, perfectly flat, fully exposed to the sun, and directly into a stiff headwind.  That wind had been out of the north the day before; it was now out of the south.  Welcome to cycling!

Riding alone, I had no one with whom to share the burden of fighting the wind, and any effort to get out of the saddle to change my weight distribution caused me to lose 5 mph immediately.

This terrain seemed more suited to alligators than bears.
There was nothing to look at aside from scrubby trees and the occasional ramshackle country house, and no one to talk to.  It felt like I was making no progress whatever, and it was pretty demoralizing.  My anticipation of the overnight control, where I could freshen up and talk to other humans, doubtless exacerbated my funk.  I mentally dubbed this region "The Doldrums."  I was trying to listen to an audiobook, but in my mental fatigue I was having trouble following it.  I'd suddenly realize I hadn't absorbed anything that had happened for ten minutes at a time.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

After what felt like -- and very well might have been -- hours of flogging myself along to no apparent end, some small mountains began to appear on the horizon, which suggested that at some point I might escape to greener pastures or hillier ones, or something.  I wasn't picky at that point; I'd have been up for hill repeats if it came to that, just please, no more flat baking in the headwind.

A hint of relief to come.
Even better!
Fittingly, my pick-me-up came in the form of a pickup truck that picked me up.  It turned out that there were road repairs underway on the ten-mile stretch leading into Healy.  Whereas on the east coast traffic would have been routed around the roadwork, in central Alaska, there's only one road available.  The construction crews solve this problem by lining dozens of cars up on each end, then having the cars follow a pilot car, or truck in this instance, slowly through the construction zone.  During daylight hours, while this system was in effect, cyclists were not allowed to ride through the construction, which was just dandy with me -- I got to ride in the bed of the pickup truck for ten miles or so!

While I waited for the pilot car, I struck up a conversation with a group of three motorcyclists at the head of the line of cars.  One of them immediately started quizzing me about the brand of my trunk bag and rack, and asked me how I liked my Seven.  It turned out he had one also, and had just ridden a double-century on it a month or two before.  You never can tell with people!

Traveling in style!
Once the truck started bobbing along, I leaned back against the cab with my bike on my lap and dozed off almost immediately, pleased that I'd managed to become the lead float in the world's worst parade.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

This whole experience probably didn't save me any time; the pilot car wasn't going any faster than I would have on my bike on decent pavement, and waiting for the pilot car took a few minutes.  But that bumpy ride on a steel bed felt like the most luxurious spa experience I'd ever had.  I was completely wasted.

HEAVEN IN HEALY

The second overnight control, in Healy (mile 480), was only a couple of miles past the construction.  It was hosted in a small church equipped with a shower, which was all the luxury I needed.  While I got cleaned up, re-chamois creamed, and put on fresh clothes, Max performed some much-needed mechanical work on my bike, including cleaning the drivetrain and remounting my front headlight, which had fallen off on a rough stretch of pavement.  I wasn't capable of articulating thoughts very clearly, but fortunately he figured out what I needed and did it quickly and ably.  I ate a massive plate of lasagna and washed it down with a couple of cups of coffee before turning to my shoes, with which I'd lost all patience.  My small toes were unrecognizable as such; they felt like they were being bent into new, creative appendages.  So, I did what anyone with the mental wherewithal of a 7-year-old and a pair of scissors would do: I hacked massive holes in my toe boxes.

Now my toes could enjoy the views in Denali, too.
There was nothing scientific about the approach, but it worked like magic -- I had no problems with my feet for the rest of the ride.  I should have done it long ago.

Hope.  Have you seen my hope?  Coulda sworn it was in here.
The gloves came off, but then I put 'em back on.
Having checked off everything on my to-do list, I thanked the volunteers and prepared to do battle with the dusk.  As it turns out, it was only 7:30 p.m., but I'd lost all sense of time and space.  I just turned left, stomped on the pedals, and hoped for the best.

DESPERATELY SEEKING DENALI

Virtually as soon as I rolled out of Healy, the world fundamentally changed.  Gone were the harsh headwinds, punishing sun, and desolate landscape.  I'd ridden 210 miles since leaving the mountains, and that changed in a moment.

Denali.  What is there to say?  There are no words for how gorgeous the place is.  Compared to the eastern part of the Alaska Range that I'd passed through the day before, with its snowcapped peaks and glaciers, the western part was more earthen but no less spectacular.  If anything, the grassy slopes had a  living, vibrant character that the the previous mountains had lacked in their austere beauty.

Rather than describe it, I'll let the pictures and video do the talking.  What's impossible to convey is the sense that you're utterly surrounded by these visions; there were times when I stopped my bike on the side of the road and just turned around slowly, thinking "you must be kidding."

This is gonna be good.
A photograph or an oil painting?
I hope that driver glanced over his shoulder.
Yep, that's a descent.  For miles and miles...

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

Surely one of the most beautiful valleys on earth.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

I loved how the mountains in Denali had distinct characters.
To a cyclist, this may as well be an "upshift and smile" billboard.
I've heard of blue mountains, but some of these really were.
As the sun began to get lower in the sky, the landscape changed yet again; the mountains to the west turned to silhouettes, and shadows played across the slopes of their sisters to the east.

If this doesn't speak to you, nothing will.
Stripes of sunlight.  Just below is a video of this scene.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

The contrast between earth and sky was remarkable.
River vista: the view to the west
River vista: the view to the east.
The fireweeds tried their best to compete with their surroundings.
Me, bombing down another stunning descent.
And as the sun got lower yet, the view to the west froze me in my tracks.  I was nearly heartbroken by the sense that I might not have chosen to do this ride, and that, if I hadn't, my life might have passed without visiting this place.  

If I had a dollar for every time I've seen this, I'd have a dollar.
Unmissable.
Unforgettable
I could try to spin a story about how the 38 miles from Healy to Cantwell were tough, that I was tired, and all of it.  In truth, though, I was sorely tempted to turn around and ride right back to Healy just so this segment wouldn't end.  I had the sense that I wouldn't see anything like this again for many years --  that the sunset was somehow metaphorical.  Maybe it was my sleep-deprived state, but I was completely choked up.  If you're thinking about visiting Denali, don't wait -- just go, and bring your bicycle.

Max and I had planned to spend our second night in Cantwell (mile 518) and we had a hotel room there, so this was another place I spent as little time as possible as I didn't want to be tempted to crash out.  I wanted to ride my "Denali high" as far as it would take me.  It was about 10:45 p.m., and I knew that if I were going to succeed in my gambit of riding straight through to Anchorage, the next several hours would be critical.  I reasoned that if I could just make it to sunrise without any system failures, the rest of the ride would take care of itself on some level.   The challenge would be to avoid a nighttime segment as disastrous as my hypothermia experience on the first night.

With Max meeting me at each control through the night, I simply had to decide what I wanted to carry for each segment of 30-40 miles.  When I left Cantwell, it was still pretty warm out: low 70s, I estimated.  So I held off on the jacket, opting instead for arm warmers, although I carried my knee warmers with me for peace of mind.

The first few miles heading from Cantwell toward Hurricane Gulch were simply made for aerobars -- a flat cruise through a gorgeous valley cast in pastel hues by the indirect sunlight.  If I squinted correctly, I could almost believe the small trees were cacti and that I was rolling through a scene out of an old Western movie.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

To the west, the prismatic spectacle continued.
On the horizon, I got my first view of Mt. McKinley.
Those are huge mountains in front of McKinley.  Holy crap!
The locals are used to sights like this.  Less so to interloping cyclists.
Eventually the "TT to McKinley" theme yielded to a different one: as the sun went down, the road went up.  As darkness descended after midnight, the temperature plummeted, and I was reminded that with climbs come descents, and there just isn't much of a way to warm up when rolling downhill for five minutes at a stretch in 50-degree weather.  My paltry arm warmers were totally insufficient, and I found myself desperately hoping to see a climb around every corner.

At least the moon was trying to cheer me up.
What's more, the road after midnight was empty... except for massive tanker trucks blasting past at about 80 mph.  And there were a lot of those.  I generally preferred to ride in the road, as opposed to on the shoulder, to minimize my chance of encountering debris in the dark, but every time I heard an oncoming roar I'd have to duck back across the rumble strips and take refuge as the rolling thunder barreled past.  To be fair, the drivers were generally courteous, often driving on the left side of the road even though I was on the shoulder to the right, but each time I knew that the next one might be a closer shave.

As I gained altitude and the hours passed, the clouds around Mt. McKinley dispersed and I was finally able to make out its jagged contours, which were backlit long after the rest of the world had succumbed to the night.

Now that's a mountain.  I'd see it from the other side the next day.
I rolled into the Hurricane Gulch control (mile 554) at 1:45 a.m., chilled to the core once again.  Will I never learn?  A real lesson to take away from this experience is that, when my body's exhausted, it's basically unable to regulate temperature at all, so what's an acceptable level of crisp in the normal course can reduce me to a shivering mess if encountered at the wrong time.  Fortunately, Max was waiting for me with my jacket, which I considered to be virtually life-saving equipment at that point.

We found Mike Price, a volunteer, asleep in a van with a sign in the window urging us to knock when we arrived.  It was amazing dedication for him to be out there all night essentially just waiting for me; the next riders wouldn't arrive until about 8:00 in the morning.  Even more amazing, as I waited, he dished out a bowl of homemade bison chili with minestrone.  The hot, salty, and hearty meal was just about the best thing I'd ever tasted, and I gratefully accepted a second and third helping.  

It was the very finest of dining!  Thanks, Mike.
I was a little reluctant to set off from Hurricane Gulch because I knew that the next stretch, a 40-mile segment to Mary's McKinley View Lodge, would have me riding through the darkest of night available in Alaska at that time of year, and doing so after having been on my bike for an unfathomably long time.  It was especially difficult to stay focused given that there was no one to talk to.  But, I reasoned, this is it: if I were going to ride straight through, this was the time when I had to do it rather than just talk about it.  I figured that, if the Race Across America guys could ride for 8-10 days on an hour or two of sleep a night, I could pull off the feat for only a couple of days.  It sounded like a good theory at the time.  

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

THE HEART OF DARKNESS

Max took off for Mary's McKinley View, planning to sleep in the car for a couple of hours and to meet me when I arrived around 4:00 a.m., so I was on my own for 2-3 hours.  The chili powered me through the darkness well enough for the first ten miles or so, even if it was awfully desolate.  I turned up the music a bit and just tried to keep the pedals turning minute by minute.

Videos can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

Around 2:15 or 2:30 a.m., I heard a truck approaching from behind and saw the lights, much as had been happening for the last couple of hours.  This time, though, the truck seemed to pull up a bit behind me and then match my speed, something that always makes me a little nervous.  When that happens, it's almost always someone just checking out the action, but I'm always a bit afraid that it's some drunk person or group of teenagers plotting something incredibly stupid.

They were just checkin' me out; who can blame them?  I have nice lights.
Thankfully, after 30 seconds or so, the truck pulled alongside and I was astonished to see Greg and Joe, the photographers!  I couldn't believe they'd found me at that time of night, but it was great to see friendly faces and we chatted thorough the window for a couple of minutes.  As we did, I found myself in surprisingly high spirits and feeling great.  It's amazing what a little company will do.  The RAAM guys must benefit immensely from having a follow car and a headset through which they can communicate constantly with their support crew.

Fighting the night.
Four headlights.  Overkill?  Not for our protagonist.
After chatting about my day -- could it really have been 14 hours since they found me fixing my flat tire? -- they pulled ahead for a few minutes.  I then saw them facing back toward me, where they captured this incredible shot:

That pretty much says it all.
That was to be the last time I'd see the photographers on my ride; with the rest of the field 8-12 hours back, there simply was too much ground for one crew to cover.  I was honored that they'd made the effort to find me at such a late hour -- those guys were working as hard as we were.

In some ways, it's too bad the photographers didn't find me 20 minutes later, as 3:00 a.m. approached, because I suddenly fell apart in truly epic fashion.  I knew I was tired, of course, and anyone would be a bit sleepy after riding for 24 hours and finding oneself alone at night.  But this was something more serious; my mind and body were just shutting down.  I realized I'd had no caffeine since my coffee in Healy some 8 hours earlier -- an immense mistake -- and for some reason I wasn't carrying caffeine pills.   I was alone in the dark, and the real challenge of riding without adequate sleep suddenly hit me full force.  I realized that I wasn't riding straight down the road, and even worse, I began to hallucinate.  Looking up the road, the yellow center line on the left and the white line on the right converged in the distance in front of me, and they transformed into the bottom wings of an Imperial Shuttle from Star Wars, which I saw floating in front of me.

This did not bode well.
It was almost a dissociative experience; I didn't actually believe the shuttle was there, but I was seeing it nevertheless.  The voice in my head suggested that this might not be an ideal state.  Things were no better when, a couple of minutes later, a group of branches arching across the road transformed into the arms of some primordial creature intent on devouring me.  As Sean Connery put it in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, "Our situation has not improved."

The last hour to Mary's McKinley View Lodge was one of the hardest I've ever had on a bike.  I was going incredibly slowly, just trying to keep my eyes focused and on the road.  There were large cracks running sideways across the road every 50 yards or so that would jolt me uncomfortably.  I'd cranked my music mix as loud as it would go and was shouting along with the tunes at the top of my lungs, trying to get my brain interacting with something.  If any bears were watching as I slogged past, they'll be calling me.  Maybe.

After one of the longest hours of my life, I finally saw a parking lot to my right with a couple of cars parked in it, including Max's.  I'd made it!  At least, I'd made it to the control at Mary's McKinley View Lodge at mile 593, wherever on earth that was.  Max was asleep in one car and another volunteer was asleep in a van, so I rousted Max and together we convinced the volunteer to make some coffee on a propane stove.  That's what I really needed.  While the two of them attended to that, I staggered over to Max's car and passed out in the passenger's seat for 10 or 15 minutes.

When I awoke and gulped down the coffee appreciatively, I noted that the world was getting lighter once more.  I hoped that the sunlight would galvanize my brain into something resembling consciousness, because I couldn't bear the thought of another stretch like the last one.  With many thanks to Max and the volunteer, I rolled out toward Talkeetna, the third overnight control.  Max, noting my state, suggested that I sleep for 30 minutes when I got there, which I thought sounded like a very reasonable plan assuming that I managed to get there at all.

There were great views of Mt. McKinley, but I was in no mood to care.
Max then headed back to Cantwell to rejoin his parents; I was on my own for the remaining 180 miles of the journey.

I knew that, past Mary's McKinley View Lodge, the route turned left to head north for a 28-mile out-and-back (14 miles each way) to the Alaskan climber haven of Talkeetna.  In my mind I'd thought that this turn was immediately past Mary's, which meant that the upcoming segment would, thankfully, be a mere 20-miler or so.  How wrong I was -- it turned out to be 36 miles to the turn north, and fully 50 miles to Talkeetna.

Even worse, the coffee and daybreak did little to bring my mind back into the game.  The bottom line is that I'd ridden 580 miles on 3 hours of sleep and had nothing left to give.  As I tried to get myself down the road, I felt oddly hollow, and had the tinge of nausea that accompanies sleep deprivation.  The drowsiness descended once more, and again I wasn't sure what to do.  I could just stop on the side of the road and lie down in a ditch, but that seemed unwise on a number of levels.  At one point I stopped on the shoulder and did 30 pushups and some jumping jacks to try to get my blood moving.  On several others I intentionally rode right down the rumble strips in 10-second intervals, which is a thoroughly jarring experience that probably does nothing good for one's bicycle.

Moreover, the infernal cracks across the road continued; it felt like I'd been getting banged around for 100 miles.  This probably sounds like a trivial matter, but these cracks were anything but a joke.

No bueno.
I can't tell you how sick I got of the "buh-BUMP!" every fifteen seconds.  Part of it is doubtless that, in my exhaustion, any setback had a crushing emotional resonance; regardless, it was driving me to wit's end.  At one point I took off my jacket and put it in my trunk bag in the thought that some cool air on the torso might wake me up, and 30 seconds later, I heard a loud rattle on the ground behind me.  I circled back to find that I'd entirely forgotten to close my trunk bag, and my iPhone had hit the ground to disastrous effect.

Not the most effective case in the world.
Trying to look on the bright side, I reasoned that maybe getting some glass shards stuck in my face would wake me up a bit.

Somehow I gutted out the 36 miles to the Talkeetna spur -- only 14 miles to go to breakfast! -- and I spied a gas station on the corner, where I stopped and treated myself to an extra strength 5-Hour Energy and large bag of Sour Skittles.  It was very effective, although the acid from the Sour Skittles quickly burned off half of the skin in my mouth and left me unable to taste much for the remainder of the ride.

Happily, after hours in the pits of despair, I was finally starting to come around a bit.  The 14-mile spur north to Talkeetna was a flattish cruise on nice pavement that reminded me a lot of our rides on the east coast.  It was a beautiful day!

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

As Talkeetna approached, I was treated to some amazing sights:

Sunlight glistened off of enormous lakes with the range in the background.

Mt. McKinley suddenly materialized in front of me.
And then I was there: the second overnight control Talkeetna, at mile 643!  It was 9:15 a.m., about 4.5 hours after setting off from Mary's McKinley View Lodge.  How the time flies when you're delirious.  By this point I had no idea where the other riders were; I had little enough idea where I was.  But I had a cadre of volunteers all to myself, which was amazing.  While one prepared some scrambled eggs and toast, I took a shower, changed clothes once again, and somehow persuaded myself not to crash on the bed that was waiting for me.  Just 112 miles more, I reasoned -- I knew that distance only too well.

Over the course of an hour or so, I enjoyed another round of eggs and toast and a few more cups of coffee.  I'd learn later that I even earned a mention in a news story about the ride.  Galvanized by the shower, the food, and the bright sunshine, I shot Max a text message telling him that I wasn't going to bed down; I wanted to knock out the remaining century-plus and call it a (very long) day.

THE HOMESTRETCH

I knew several things about the upcoming segment to Wasilla, the last control before Anchorage: (1) It was a punishing 70-miles long; (2) It was pretty flat and net downhill; and (3) Given the winds out of the north on the first day, I should have a tailwind.  I figured I could just gut it out to Wasilla and then the remaining 39 miles to Anchorage would take care of themselves.

Without putting too fine a point on it, this segment turned out to be difficult and unpleasant, especially compared to the wonderland of Denali that lived on in my recent memory.  It was indeed largely flat.  But it was also a very hot day -- mid-80s in Alaska is a rarity -- and it was totally exposed to the sun.  Even worse, it was a featureless haul down the shoulder of a highway with sometimes double-wide rumble strips.  The result was something of a sufferfest as I picked my way along, hoping not to flat as I battled the blazing sun.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

After about 30 miles of this, a fact sunk in that I hadn't quite been conscious of until then: the air in Alaska was as dry as a desert, and it was sucking the water out of me at an alarming rate.  I drained both bottles quickly after leaving Talkeetna and my mouth was parched when I found a convenience store halfway to Wasilla, where I drank an entire gallon of water along with a Red Bull for good measure before filling my bottles again.  Even so, my mouth was dry again five miles later.  It was not good.

As Wasilla approached and the traffic picked up, I found myself unsure of where on the road to ride.  There was a narrow and gravel-filled shoulder, which wasn't much of a good time and didn't look like it was made for cycling.  About twenty yards off the side of the road, there was a paved bike path, which seemed like an obvious answer.  I tried it for a bit.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

The problem was, the pavement on the path was often broken up and rutted, and the path itself wasn't  continuous.  It would branch off from the highway, arch up into some woods, and then merge with the highway again, usually in a pile of gravel.  It was fine for recreational cyclists, but it wasn't at all what I was looking for at that point.  The further I went, the more often I found myself grinding it out down the shoulder.

As I approached the final control in Wasilla, at mile 718(!), I was just done -- completely dehydrated, bonked beyond recognition, sleep-deprived, and utterly exhausted.  The final control was at a Walmart, which offered the fine dining options of McDonalds and nothing else.  I didn't care.  I staggered into McDonalds, ordered two chicken sandwiches with large fries and large Coke, and plowed through them despite my dehydration-driven lack of appetite.  It was pretty disgusting, tasteless and greasy, although the tasteless part might have been because I'd burned off all of my tastebuds on the Skittles earlier.  Taking care not to get glass shards in my fingers, I sent a Tweet letting friends and family know that, if I disappeared, at least they could confine any search to within 40 miles of Anchorage.  I sat in McDonalds for nearly an hour, a gratuitous amount of time but one that somehow seemed unduly rushed anyway.

I pulled out from Wasilla at about 3:30 pm for the final 39-mile stretch to Anchorage.  By that point I'd ridden about 440 miles without sleep, on top of a 270-mile opening day.  Wasilla turned out to be quite pretty, although my appreciation of Another Beautiful Mountain (ABM) was long behind me.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

It struck me that the 20 miles south of Wasilla should have been a piece of cake, with stretches of 5 miles or more at slight downgrade.  Unfortunately, the headwinds that day were so strong that they'd quickly bring me to a halt of I stopped pedaling.  There was no rest to be found, and as with most of the day, I found myself plowing down the side of a very busy highway. It's too bad there's no better way to get from Denali to Anchorage.  It was a relentless and dispiriting stretch, and my legs were so shot that the only way I could make real progress was to get out of the saddle and charge for ten seconds or so, then hunker down and coast.

The last fifteen miles through Eagle River and into Anchorage got prettier and more interesting.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

Kevin had marked the course well, obviating any need for a cue sheet.

Hurray!  I'm supposed to be here.
Surprisingly, though, these miles had by far the steepest hills of the entire ride.  The last several miles were largely on bike paths, but some of them seemed like they climbed at a 10% grade for nearly a mile at a time.

The last few miles were blissful, a calm spin along a bike path through the woods with the pavement speckled with sunlight filtered through the trees.

Video can be played on YouTube in 720p HD.

I shot Max a text when I was 3 miles out, and he came out to cheer me along the path.  He told me I had about half a mile left to the last control at the Comfort Inn, but when I got to a building that looked promising, I was too exhausted to figure out how to get from the path to the parking lot, so I just dismounted and walked my bike toward what I hoped was the end.  And then I saw it!  The finish line, at unbelievably-long last.

Video can be viewed on YouTube in 720p HD.

I'm alive!
Standing because I can't get off my bike without falling.
I'd made it: My first 1200k, or 758 miles!  I finished at 7:15 p.m. on Wednesday evening, 67 hours and 16 minutes after rolling out at 11:59 p.m. on Sunday night.  What an unbelievable journey.

I'd gotten a little sun.


REFLECTION

To call this the most ridiculous thing I've ever done would be to undersell it.  The ride was so spectacular that I'm mildly depressed at the thought of riding anywhere else.  To anyone who hasn't been to Alaska, just go.  If you have a bike, bring it.  It's an utterly transformative experience.

My informal and somewhat ambitious goal with Max had been to try to finish the ride in 72 hours or so, which would have been a gratifying performance.  To ride low 67, with the last 600 miles being a solo effort, certainly qualifies as the ride of my life.  The next riders finished in just over 80 hours.  As I keep reminding my friends, this wasn't a race; arguably an 85-hour ride finished with a smile and a beer is a "better" ride, and one more true to the randonneuring spirit, than one ridden faster.  Still, I feel like I got to experience a little bit of what the RAAM guys go through on their quests, and I found out some things about myself in the process.  Having said that, I really wish Max had been in a position to ride rather than support my effort.  His support was invaluable and he took many of the pictures and videos on this ride recap, but rides like this go better with good company.

The event production was a marvel of efficiency and good cheer.  Kevin and the rest of the volunteers put on an amazing show.  Randonneuring is, by definition, a self-supported endeavor, but I think there were only 2-3 controls without a volunteer ready to sign our control cards, feed us, and send us on our way with a smile.  That was true even in parking lots in Nowhereville in the middle of the night.  These guys really went above and beyond; I can't say enough about the job they did.

I'll probably ride another 1200k at some point, and I have some ultracycling races in my future.  If I do ride another 1200k, though, I probably won't do it like this.  Riding 750 miles on 3 hours of sleep, and with no one to talk to for the last 55 hours, put me in a place I'm not keen to revisit.  I didn't emerge unscathed.

  1. I went to bed about three hours after I finished and slept for 12 hours or so.  I was sleeping on an air mattress on the floor, which was quite comfortable.  The problem is that, when I woke up, I literally could not get off the ground without dragging myself across the floor to a sofa that I could use to leverage myself upright.  In doing so, my arms and legs were shaking uncontrollably, and it took me about five minutes to stand up.  I wasn't sore; my body just didn't work.  It was a little alarming.
  2. That morning, I initially felt okay, and Max and I walked to a local coffee shop for breakfast.  Around 11:00 a.m., though, I suddenly went into an acute downward spiral.  I got nauseated and dizzy, started shivering uncontrollably, and ached all over like I had the worst flu in the world.  I spent the next six hours in bed trembling, before hauling myself up to go to the party at the end.  I'd have no appetite for the next four days.
  3. It's now 10 days after the ride, and I still substantially lack feeling in the small fingers on each hand, which were almost completely numb for the latter parts of the ride.  When I pressed on my palms, I'd get pins and needles up and down my hand and fingers.  It turns out I have a classic case of handlebar palsy.  Having name for it makes it a little less unnerving (no pun intended), but I have to think this isn't healthy, and that getting some solid sleep mid-ride would have done a lot to alleviate the problem.
  4. At the risk of oversharing: despite drinking constantly, I didn't urinate for 21 hours after the event.  That likely has a lot to do with my problems.
In short, I had a terrific ride and proved to myself that I could fight through adversity in a way I've rarely done, but next time I think I'll leave such efforts for races.

THINGS THAT WORKED

Almost everything, fortunately.  My bag setup, with large bento box and trunk bag, was perfect.  The aerobars really helped me and probably saved my wrists and fingers from further damage.  Dropping  a new USB battery in each overnight bag was a straightforward and effective way to ensure that I was never without power.  Likewise, the combination of GoPro camera on the aerobars and handheld camera in the bento box worked a treat.

I tried three new things on this ride, and each worked amazingly:

  1. Tums.  I carried a roll in my bento box, and I ate 1-2 tablets after each snack or meal.  I've had severe acid reflux problems on my 400ks and 600ks by the end; I think it comes from ingesting sugary and acidic foods and burping for hours on end.  The Tums kept my stomach in working order for the entire ride, and had a pleasant flavor to boot.  Highly effective.
  2. Preparation H.  It sounds ridiculous but, in combination with a good chamois cream (DZNutz, in my case), it helped tremendously with saddle comfort.  Every 100 miles or so, I'd slather a layer of Prep H cream everywhere that risked chafing, and then 5 minutes later I'd apply a generous layer of chamois cream.  The antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties made an enormous difference.  I'd had a little trouble sitting down toward the end of my 600k, but that was never a problem on this ride.
  3. Cutting holes in my shoes.  In my opinion, ultracycling shoes should come that way.  
ONE THING I'LL TRY

I was pretty much the only moron out there on a triathlon saddle.  I actually find it quite comfortable on shorter rides and at least livable on longer ones, but the Selle Anatomica saddle was ubiquitous among the vets on this ride, and I think I'll give it a try.  It's a leather, Brooks-like number with a perineal cutout, and it looks classy to boot:
Selle Anatomica Titanico X.  Be mine!
MacGYVER AWARD


I had my silly tire mishap on the ride and fixing it was unduly dramatic, but it was nothing compared to what one guy overcame.  Apparently he was riding by himself and got a series of punctures.  He was able to repair the tubes, but he used up his supply of Co2 cartridges and had neglected to bring a hand pump.  He was, in short, unable to inflate his tires.

His unbelievable solution was to wander into the woods and find tree branches that could be stripped down to a diameter just larger than that of an innertube.  Over the course of an hour, he then painstakingly filled his tube with wood, remounted the tire, and rode the bike several miles down the road until he could find a more permanent solution.  I'm serious.

He wins. 
I had to see it to believe it.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR ME

I'm not sure what's next for me as far as randonneuring goes.  Almost certainly nothing this year, as I have Ironman Lake Tahoe in September, and the California Internal Marathon in December, to contend with.  I may well give High Country 1200k or Shenandoah 1200k a try next year; we'll see.  I'll definitely compete in a few 12- and 24-hour time trials to see what I can do on those, and of course I'll have a few triathlons here and there.  Perhaps Paris-Brest-Paris in 2015?  

For now, I'm still basking in the glow of this experience, and I'm glad I remember as much of it as I do.  I'll never look at cycling the same way.

Don't forget to check out my movie of the ride!