Sunday, July 24, 2016

Chasing a Canadian: Race Across Oregon 2016 Race Report

This is my pet elevation profile.  His name is Spike.
The Race Across Oregon bills itself as the "best qualifier to prepare you to compete in [the Race Across America," and the defense of that theory is that it's the toughest event you can find in the 500-mile range.  People think of Oregon and imagine hipsters, pinot noir, and verdant forests; those are to be found, but not on this course.  RAO starts in The Dalles, which is about 90 minutes east of Portland on the Columbia River, and it's the beginning of the end as far as green goes.  George Thomas, the race director, is an institution in the ultracycling world -- he hosts several endurance-cycling podcasts and often serves as the finish line announcer for RAAM.  RAO has been his insidious plaything for the last 19 years; next year, for the 20th anniversary, it sounds like he's planning a "difficult" version.  God help us.

The thing is, this race is a beast from the first mile to the last -- 520 miles and 42,000 feet of climbing, some 13,000 more than the peak of Mt. Everest is above sea level.  Commercial airliners cruise at 39,000 feet.  The Silver State 508, which I raced in 2014, is 10 miles shorter and "only" has 20,000 feet of climbing, i.e., less than half as much.  Complicating matters further are the temperatures and winds.  RAO is notorious for having 100-degree climbs without a tree for 50 miles in any direction, and you ride through some of the largest wind farms I've ever seen, which suggests something about the breezes one might encounter.  The combination of distance, climbing, heat, and winds makes this about the toughest "single day" ride around, not that anyone can actually finish it in a single day.

Why race it?  It's gorgeous in an "I hope I don't die out here" kind of way, and sometimes it's fun to go primal and see what you're capable of conquering.  Plus you get to experience the third grader's dream of eating literally whatever you want for a couple of days, assuming the unlikely premise that you're capable of keeping food down.  Who wouldn't sign up for that in a heartbeat?

I'd signed up for RAO in 2015, but my losing encounter with a wet metal bridge in Texas derailed that plan.  This year, though, I was focused on it and about as prepared as I'd ever been for anything.  So far this year I'd taken on 2 separate 24-hour races (Sebring and National 24-Hour), ridden a 200k, 300k, 400k with 18,000 feet of climbing, and SR600k, and most recently, I'd cranked out 450 miles with 45,000 feet of climbing over the course of a week in the desert heat of Corsica.  All told, I'd ridden 5+ days a week, week-in and week-out.  RAO could bring its worst.

Oddly, though, it didn't seem inclined to.  I'd been visualizing riding inside of the world's largest and steepest hairdryer for 520 miles, but the weather forecast was disquietingly non-disquieting.  Highs in the low 80s, lows in the high 40s, and winds of... 7 mph.  I couldn't quite believe it, so I checked every location on the course I could find for a week or more out, but they all told the same story.  So, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I packed my deep-rim racing wheels, reasoning that if I can't handle them in 7-mph winds, I need to turn in my man card.  But I did bring along a backup set of conventional wheels from one of my crew members, because if there's one thing I've learned in my years of riding, it's that I'm the cycling version of the Bad News Bears.

Speaking of crew, my two crew members were Max and Sam, the same pair of brothers who'd endured with my nonsense at Silver State 508 two years ago.  As ultracyclists and bike mechanics, they were the perfect guys to know what I needed before I did, which is the ultimate help on a ride like this.

My pre-race serenity glare.
As the race field shaped up, it looked like there were three favorites to win, in one order or another.  Mick Walsh, a past winner and veteran ultracyclists from Ireland by way of Seattle, was one of them.  The second was a Canadian randonneur, Nigel Press, about whom I knew little; I gathered from the pre-race meeting that he was a vegetarian, so I asked my crew to surreptitiously spike the route with beef jerky fragments.  The third was me, but let's be serious here -- I've found ways to finish third in solo training rides.

Making sure my GPS wasn't going to guide me to Corsica.

Mick Walsh and Nigel Press, probably debating the best arm-sleeve color.

Everyone's feeling good about their chances of a top-10 finish.

So far, so good.  But not very far.
Start to TS-1 (Almost Tygh Valley)
57 Miles; 5,275 feet of climbing

The race started with a 22-mile appetizer loop to the northwest of The Dalles, running along the Columbia River before swinging inland, climbing Sevenmile Hill, and bombing back down past the Dalles before heading onward toward, well, who knew.  We spun merrily through a perfect 60-degree dawn, enjoying the neutral start before George unleashed us onto the course (or vice-versus).  About 50 yards into the first climb -- perhaps mile 7 -- Nigel cruised past me and moseyed on into the distance.  I was holding a steady 250 watts or so, which was about the most I was interested in doing in the first 20 minutes of a 520-mile ride, so I felt confident that Nigel was getting a little over-enthusiastic.  For me, the mission at that point was singular: go easy, keep the heart rate down, and eat every damn thing I could get my hands on.

Then Mick passed me, too.  Well, crap.  By the top of the first 500-foot climb, Mick was about 50 yards ahead, and Nigel was... actually, it wasn't clear.  But nowhere that I could see.  I had mental images of mushroom clouds.  The 4-mile, 1000-foot climb up Sevenmile passed uneventfully, with Mick pulling away steadily.

Max and Sam had pre-ridden this 22-mile beginning loop the weekend before, and on our scouting drive, they'd warned me that the wind had gotten a little squirrelly on the 4-mile, 1700-foot descent from the Sevenmile summit.  Things felt pretty still to me, but as I noted, I was riding Zipp 808s, which aren't the most stable wheels I could have chosen.  I resolved to be safe above all else.  My speeds crept up into the mid-40s, but with wide, sweeping turns, all was well.

Then it suddenly wasn't, in a very big way.  When Oregon weather forecasts say "7 mph winds," they must mean an average of 7 mph.  Thus, the winds were 0-2 mph, except for brief periods when they kicked up to about 60 mph without warning.  I found myself going 40 mph down a hill into a sudden malevolent swirl, and it induced something I've since learned is called "speed wobble."  It isn't nearly as much fun as it sounds.  The wind twisted my front wheel sideways, and then when the bike corrected itself, it overcorrected and flipped the wheel to the other side where the wind caught it again, and so forth.  The end result was that suddenly my front wheel was whipping back and forth as the bicycle shook violently.   I was 100% sure that I was going to crash, and was in the state of wondering how best to fall so as not to wind up back in the emergency room.

Here's what speed wobble looks like from behind on a descent slightly less technical than the one I was on.  Watch the full first 45 seconds, but the 30-second mark is where it gets lively:

Speed wobble is just terrifying, and mine lasted easily twice as long as the episode in the video.  The mental process was: "Holy crap, the whole bike is shaking... front wheel bucking... can't steer... going to flip over handlebars any second, how do I survive this... help... haven't flipped over yet, so at least it will constitute a valiant effort... I'm running off of the road because I can't steer, but maybe that will make the landing less painful... maybe if I relax a bit... bike shaking less... whoa, stay on road... brake... I'm still alive, but I have no idea why... ok, I've got it."  7-mph winds, my *ss.  

Meanwhile, Mick was well out of sight as I rode my brakes to the bottom of the hill, where George was waiting with his camera.  He seemed happy to see me, but I was far happier to see him, or really anything except stars.

Outside: stoic.  Inside: abject terror.
Well, this wasn't going to plan so far, but I was still on my feet (so to speak), and I linked up with my the crew to cruise through The Dalles in pursuit of a Canadian and an Irishman across the high desert of Oregon.  Call it the Ultracycling Theory of Globalization.

Needless to say, the route did not take us to "Friend." 
As we headed south from The Dalles, we shortly began a climb that couldn't decide whether it was a false flat or a protracted slog.  The cue sheet said "generally ascending for next 21.5 miles/2300 feet," but I didn't have that in front of me.  All I knew was that I was going nowhere fast, and very occasionally going fast toward nowhere.  At some point I rolled past Mick as he took a nature break, but he slotted in right behind me and was riding well.

This is what passes as an action shot in the ultracycling world.

A splash of coral and air of indignation... must be Damon.
Max managed to catch me hoofing up the climb with Mick in hot pursuit.

Eventually we reached the Tygh River Summit at mile 49 and began the long, gliding descent toward the first time station.  By all rights, this descent should have been a blast -- little traffic, great visibility and pavement, and a shoulder to keep one out of harm's way -- but I found it incredibly stressful.  In general, there was little wind, but especially after my earlier bout with speed wobble, it became apparent that any break in the hills would bring a vicious crosswind from one direction or another.  Also, there were large trucks and semis passing at 50 mph or so; they weren't close enough to be dangerous themselves, but they created strong, swirling gusts that would play havoc with my front wheel about 5 seconds after they passed.  

In general, I started to think of the wind on this course as an invisible ninja who'd attack unpredictably and from a random direction.  (To those who protest that ninjas are always invisible and unpredictable, I salute your wisdom.  Namaste.)  I'd be riding on my merry way, then suddenly my bike would be possessed by demons.  At that point I began to realize that, if the pattern kept up, my wheels were a categorical disadvantage: they were heavy, so they weren't the right choice for climbing; there was nothing flat, period, ever, to make use of their benefits for time-trialing; and on descents, any aerodynamic advantage they might have conferred was negated by the fact that I had to brake constantly to control the bike in the swirling winds.  You know it's a perverse situation when you're looking forward to the next climb because at least then you'll be safe.  

I hit the first time station and turned east toward Moro.  Nigel the Canadian Vegetarian(TM) was long out of sight, and although I'd hoped to pull away from Mick a bit, he was firmly on my tail.  Still, wind issues aside, I was executing well by keeping my heart rate firmly in check and my wattage in the "comfortable" range.  All of the food was gettin' in mah belly.  55 miles down and about 465 to go.   

Stage 2: Moro
48 miles; 3,300 feet of climbing

Stage 2 began the long eastward portion of the route's clockwise loop.  We were now in the region where there are roads, but it's not clear why -- there is virtually no civilization, unless you count the periodic hyper-toxic-looking snake sunning itself on the road.  It's pretty, though: the trees finally yielded completely to wild grasses, and we had the horizons to ourselves. 

A snake rancher, I think.
Parking opportunities on the route were... plentiful.
When we saw rushing rivers, we invariably went the way the water didn't.

Great roads, green rivers, good times.

Around that curve is the exact same view.

Max allegedly found a tree.  I suspect Photoshop sorcery.
At mile 5, we met the Dechutes River and began the 4.5-mile, 1350-foot "Grass Valley" climb, which ascended the walls of a rocky canyon.  Due to the narrow roads, no support was permitted on this stretch, so the crews hung out at the bottom while riders wound their ways skyward.  It was a meditative, solitary hike, punctuated periodically by glimpses of Mick's neon-yellow arm sleeves on lower switch-backs.  

Lisa Bliss, a female solo rider, takes on the Grass Valley climb.
Upon summiting Grass Valley at long last, we felt we had the world to ourselves, and it was pretty spectacular.  Mt. Hood's snow-capped peak towered in the distance, adding a layer of disconnect between it and the parched desert foreground.

Skiing in July?  Apparently so, on Mt. Hood.  Not for us, though.

My drafting shot.  Oh, relax -- there's no one in the stationary van.

One thing I hadn't realized was how visible the "Ring of Fire" peaks are from interior Oregon.  Mt. Hood was ever-visible, but it's only one in a string of volcanic peaks on the horizon.  To its north was the dome of Mt. St. Helens.

At the tops of certain grades, we could see all the way to Mt. Rainer, near Seattle.  At one point, from right to left, I spied Ranier, St. Helens, Hood, and Jefferson, reminders all that there were tougher climbs to be found.

A glorious solitude.

Just solitude.  And chip seal.
Somewhere along the line, Mick Walsh's support vehicle stopped overlapping me, which I took to mean he'd dropped back a little bit.  It was just me, trying to catch the Canadian.

Stage 3: Condon
43 miles; 3,971 feet of climbing

Stage 3 continued our eastward trek toward Condon, legendary on this route for the fact that it has a gas station.  On the way, though, was what the route book describes as a "generally ascending 21-mile, 2600-foot climb."  Sweet!  At least it was shady, right?  Well, not so much.

What this section did have was wheat and wind farms the likes of which I'd never seen.

Families of fan blades.

I tried to keep things in perspective.  
Having passed the 200k point and getting progressively baked in the sun, I started to think of the clusters of wind turbines as lonely colonizing families on an inhospitable planet, gazing stoically into the distance and pining for companionship.  It's possible I was projecting.  Still, the turbines were my only friends out there, and I wondered: do wind turbines dream?

Things were getting strange.  

Climbing in the aerobars, because I figured I should use them for something.

Mt. Hood recedes, but never disappears.

Eventually it became clear that this whole region was ruled by farmers and their rolling hills of golden wheat.

The wind turbines created odd studies in perspective.  At one point, on a distant hilltop, I saw a vertical shaft with what looked like dozens of spikes shooting out of the top of it from all angles, like the world's deadliest flower.  I couldn't quite imagine what it was, but as I continued on, I realized I'd seen a row of wind turbines aligned so perfectly that they looked like a single column.  And, because the turbines were pointed in slightly different directions, the blades appeared to thrust from all sides of the top of the spindle.

Finally, about 100 miles in, I'd had enough of invisible wind ninjas.  I'd handled an 808 front wheel in all sorts of conditions, but never in a situation where there were zero clues about when the wind would hit you or from which direction.  Of course, wind is always invisible unless you live in Beijing, but usually you have trees or grass to give you some idea of what's going on.  Not here -- I'd get violently buffeted but the scrubby shrubs were models of placidity.  So, swallowing my pride, I asked my crew to switch out my front race wheel for one that wasn't an EMT full-employment device.

I read somewhere that unzipping your jersey on a climb looks pro.  
On the other hand, pairing a Zipp 808 with a shallow aluminum front wheel is not pro.
As I approached Condon, the crew darted ahead of me to take advantage of the gas station and other indicia of civilization.  But just after they left, I noted something I couldn't quite understand.  In a field to the left of the road, about half a mile in front of me, was what looked like a geyser shooting hundreds of yards into the air from the middle of a field.  At first I thought it was smoke, but it had an odd motion to it.  And, as I drew closer, I saw that parts of bushes were swirling upward within the column, and the column itself appeared to be moving toward me, looking like nothing so much as a small tornado.  It was my first encounter with a dust devil.

Not my picture, but one identical to what I saw.
As I barreled down the road, the dust devil swung across the field to intercept me.  Finally, wanting no part of colliding with it, I stopped on the side of the road as the mini-twister crossed about 20 yards in front of me, jumped up an embankment, and continued on its way.  Wild!

After about 145 miles, I reached Condon, where I found Max and Sam refueling.  I shouted something about a dust devil as I rode by, and Max replied with a look that said, "Why aren't you pedaling harder?"  Point taken, I plowed onward toward Heppner, the northeastern corner of the route.

Stage 4: Almost Heppner
42.5 miles; 3,289 feet of climbing

By now things were getting toasty.  Nothing I couldn't handle, and I still felt solid, but I took my first shot of Skratch Hyper Hydration, which is like gold powder on hot days.  It's a 1700-milligram nuclear blast of electrolytes, but it doesn't taste the least bit salty.

As the wind turbines faded into the distance, I realized I hadn't seen another rider for hours, and mentally I began to shift from racing to the randonneuring mindset of clicking off miles as efficiently as possible.  No more pedaling the descents -- I was happy to cruise down them on my new non-alarming front wheel.  When I'd see Max and Sam standing down the road, the "heat lakes" rising from the pavement made them look as if they were walking on water in the least likely of locales.

Rollin' on the river.  Just need a river.
This segment of the route was far from flat, but the stand-out features were two climbs of about 3.5 miles each with not a drop of shade to be found.

The crew waits for me to climb.  That white speck is a van.

I've got it made in the shade, sort of.
The crew prudently started icing the water, which made a substantial difference.  I was drinking so much that nature breaks were beginning to eat into my progress, which I decided was the lesser of evils.

The turbines are still visible on the horizon.
Not a tree to be seen, and not a cloud in the sky.  Just me, the open road, and if I'm honest, probably snakes.

Perfect pavement, if flawless chip seal is your thing.
Toward the end of this segment, I began to realize why this race is so tough mentally.  I was prepared for climbing, but the terrain on this ride never really gave you a good idea of where you were climbing to, or how long it might take to get there.  There are no mountaintops or ridge lines in sight; instead, you just find yourself grinding upward and realize it's been a long time since you've done anything else, and there's little sign of when the situation might change.

I reached the 300k point, "Almost Heppner," after 10 hours and 45 minutes, having climbed about 15,000 feet.  More than 1/3 of the way there!

Stage 5: Dale
60 miles, 4600 feet of climbing

Just when I'd begun to wonder if I'd ever see a tree again, things changed on a dime as I turned onto the Scenic Byway and approached the Blue Mountains.  The brush gave way to gorgeous Ponderosa pine forests.  I vaguely recalled something about a climb in this region, but I didn't realize what a climb it was -- 24 miles, gaining 3300 feet.  But I felt great, and with gentle grades ascending into verdant woods, there was no place I'd rather have been.  I kept up a happy spin and enjoyed the scenery, climbing for nearly two hours straight to the summit at 5300 feet.

The only thing more fun than this climb was the descent, a sweeping, gliding affair entirely without crosswinds due to the buffering trees.  The only trick was the cattle grids, which were more frequent than I'd have liked, particularly given my heightened sensitivity to such things following my 2015 wreck.

Cattle grid, ahoy!
Those cattle must be as big as railroad cars.

The descent took us east to Ukiah, where we turned south toward Dale, and the road evolved into one of the most glorious I've ever ridden: a twisting descent for miles along a river.  No need for brakes, no cars in sight -- what a world apart from the ordinary.

At one point, as I was sweeping along at 45 mph or so, I glimpsed in the road ahead a flock of doves doing nothing in particular.  All but one fled as I approached, but that daredevil stuck to its guns until I was about 10 feet from it.  I went left to avoid it, but the dove sprung into action in exactly the wrong manner, darting right in front of me.  It flew directly into my left shin, and the crew (in direct-follow mode by then) reported a cartoon explosion of feathers.  In the sort of thing that can't be made up, I then noted that my music mix had rolled over to Prince's When the Doves Cry.

Central Oregon looks flat from 5,000 feet.
We reached the mountain non-town of Dale shortly after sunset fell.  248 miles ridden and more than 20,000 feet climbed in 14 hours and 15 minutes -- a solid 400k any day of the week, and on pace for a 30-hour finish.  I was riding as strong as I ever had; in fact, my normalized power was well into the 220s, when at prior races it had been under 200 by that point.  In fact, I was riding more powerfully than I had in my best Ironman, and that bike segment had only been 5 hours long.  There was no sign of Nigel, but by then I knew that it was out of my hands.  He'd blow up or win in a remarkable time, and all I could do was what I could do, so that's what I did, dude.

Stage 6: Mt. Vernon
54 miles; 4,850 feet of climbing

Mt. Vernon is gas station-town at the southeastern point of the loop, and also Mile 300 or so, both of which represented mental milestones, so I was looking forward to getting there.  In retrospect, I don't remember any tough climbs, just the first nighttime hours of riding.  Upon review, though, I must have been suffering from the ultracycling version of Stockholm syndrome, because the stage was anything but flat.  It featured, among other things, a 3.7 mile, 1200-foot climb (6% grade) that the route book describes as "formidable" and over 11% grade in spots, as well as a 5.7-mile, 1600-foot grind (5% grade).  Sometimes nighttime is your friend -- if you can't see what you're climbing, you just deal with things as they come and spare yourself the drama.

Although I continued to feel strong, I was beginning to think I needed to dial it back a bit effort-wise: I was over 15 hours in, and still with watts well into the 220s.  It felt like one of the best rides I'd had, but perspective is key: I wasn't even halfway done, a fact I couldn't quite wrap my head around.  Thoughts like that are better to suppress.

With the crew in direct-follow mode, I was living in the headlights, which is a rare treat for overnight cyclists.  So often, in nighttime brevets and 24-hour races, your world shrinks to a corridor in front of your relatively meager bike headlight, which can have a trace-like effect.  The situation is different when the world is floodlit from behind, particularly on descents, where the follow vehicle would move left a bit and I'd stay to the right, thus ensuring that my shadow wouldn't be cast in front of me to obscure hazards.  The key for the crew is to stay alert so that if the cyclist has an issue, they have time to hit the brakes.  That was necessary on at least one occasion when I spied a pair of eyes in the darkness to the right of the road and made the universal "slowing!" sign, when a massive elk lumbered across the road not 15 yards ahead.  It made out better than the dove did.

We stopped briefly for gas at the Mt. Vernon mini-mart, which had long closed.  Unfortunately, due to a miscalculation, we'd neglected to fill our thermoses with hot water for overnight coffee or chicken soup, but we hoped for the best.  300 miles in the bank!

Stage 7: Mitchell
61 miles; 3,100 feet of climbing

The first 30 miles of the westward stretch toward Mitchell were a flat-out drag race, a false-flat downhill where a rider could pin the ears back, get low, and hammer toward home.  I had no sense of how far ahead of me Nigel might be, but I figured that, if he were close, this was the stretch where I'd be able to make up the ground.   I held 28 mph or so for an hour, feeling like suddenly this race was a reasonable thing to undertake.

Chasing a Canadian!
At one point on this stretch, I blew past a tree to the right that was distinctly odd-textured, seemingly with objects hanging off of it in every direction.  With the headlight glare, I couldn't quite make them out -- bats?  Barnacles?  (Beets?)  Strange.  After the race, I realized the unidentifiable objects had been shoes!

Eventually, all good things must come to an end, and the road pitched back upward.  Because I didn't have the route book in front of me, I didn't quite realize what I was in for: a 25-mile climb.  Going forward, that's the sort of thing I need to make sure I understand, because the following conversation took place at about 1:30 in the morning, after I'd climbed a 5% grade for about 45 minutes.

Me, to crew: "Is there any possibility that the top of this climb is nearby?"

Max, after ominous pause: "Um, it looks like about 14 more miles."

Me: "*$%!@!@#$"

Max: "But it looks like it isn't all this steep."

Me [thinking to self]: "Less steep -- great.  Fine, Max, you have a bike in the car.  Let's trade and you go ride it."

Upon reaching the top, I put on another layer of clothing for the descent, then picked my way down the mountain toward Mitchell.  Despite my grumbling, I was holding it together.

Stage 8: Fossil
43 miles; 4300 feet of climbing

George describe the 43-mile stage to Fossil as the hardest mile-per-mile of the ride.  It's a "net downhill,"  but that's surely the most misleading term in the cycling world.

On one of the initial 500-foot climbs, I simultaneously had both pleasant and depressing realizations. The positive was that, at the 375-mile point, I'd ridden a 600k with more than 30k feet of climbing, i.e., about as much as a "Super Randonneur 600k" like the ones I'd ridden in 43 hours in September 2015 and 35 hours in May.  This time -- albeit with a support crew -- I'd knocked it out in 22 hours and 40 minutes.  That's moving!

On the other hand, this toughest stretch of the course also came at exactly the worst moment, i.e., those hours between 3:00 and 5:30 a.m. when the body just wants to shut down.  That's just what mine was doing.  I was managing to stave off the drowsiness for the most part, but I just couldn't put out any power.  Climbs that I'd been crushing in my big ring were suddenly grinding affairs in my smallest gear, and looking back on the prior 23-24 hours, I realized that I'd spent probably 80% of the time climbing.  That's the deceptive thing about hilly courses -- in terms of mileage, it might be 50% uphill and 50% downhill, but because you cover the downhill portions so much faster than the uphill portions, in a truer sense such efforts boil down to "climbing with periodic breaks."

The bottom line was, I had all the tell-tale signs of bonking.  I was eating everything I could, from fruit bars and apples to croissants with turkey, plus drinking plenty of carb mixes, but after so long in the saddle, small periodic calorie deficits are enough to bring the needle down to empty, and that's where I was.  For me, the surest sign of bonking is a sudden black mood -- whereas all day it had been "Climb!  Ok, no problem, knock it out," now it was more like, "George, I get it, Oregon is hilly, but this is completely stupid and ceased to be interesting a long time ago."

Eventually I got off the bike and announced to the crew that I was going to sit in the car and eat a damn meal -- if Mick caught me, fine, but I needed to right my listing ship.

Me, after 24 hours.  Be glad you can't smell internet pictures.
Following my carb infusion, I waddled back to the bike and hoofed onward.  Still not having fun.  If this were a looped course, it's the point where it would have been very easy to say, "I've had enough riding, thanks," and punch the clock.  In these 500-milers, though, there's a more tangible sense that the journey must be finished, and that was only going to happen by getting up the hills and rolling down the other side.

The stage finished with an 11-mile, 2150-foot climb, because of course it did.  I craved sunlight.  407 miles ridden; "merely" 115 to go, including something called the "Clarno climb," which sounded just swell considering that none of the climbs to that point had had names worth mentioning.

Stage 9: Imperial River Company
68 miles; 5400 feet of climbing

The penultimate stage had 4 distinct challenges.  The first, a 5.5-mile, 1000-foot climb, was a gradual affair that brought the dawn with it.  Oddly, it was only in these early daylight hours that I truly started getting drowsy.  Caffeine had long since ceased having any effect except upsetting my stomach, so I was simply holding out for the sun and circadian rhythms to bring my system back online.  The other challenge was that the temperatures were in that awkward low-50s range where climbs make you sweaty and long descents bring shivering.  Sunlight was great, but I wanted the sun on me for heat.  I'd soon get my wish.

The second challenge was the 0.7-mile attack on "Totally Useless Hill," so called because that's exactly what it is.  It interrupts a terrific descent for reasons that no one can justify, then drops you straight onto the base of Clarno, which was billed as the toughest climb of the route.  Naturally, it came at mile 426.

Climbing toward Clarno, where there would be clarnage.
Clarno was an 8.3-mile, 2500-foot ascent, which is enough to make it a Cat 1 on Strava.  At 6% grade, it wasn't the steepest thing I'd ever ridden, but it was totally exposed to the sun and came at a post-bonk time when I didn't have much left to give.  Happily, though, my energy was coming back, and I spun up Clarno with no problem at all.  I couldn't get my heart rate over about 110 BPM, but that's typical after riding a bike for more than a day; the key thing is that, when I reached the top after an hour or so, I realized I could easily have done it again.  If I'd have felt that way for the previous few hours, there's no telling how far up the road I'd be.

Finally, after Clarno, there was one more to go: a 4-mile, 1000-foot grade.  Easier than Clarno, yes, but not easy, and mentally I found it even tougher because it was billed as an afterthought to Clarno.  In fact, it was plenty challenging in its own right, but Max knew me well: he and Sam met me at the top with an ice cream cone they'd managed to find at a local shop.  It was like being in Corsica all over again!

After finding the ridgeline, it was time for what was billed as a "17-mile, 1700-foot rollercoaster descent" down Bakeoven Road.  And that road, my friends, is the epitome of nominative determinism, because an oven is just what it felt like, and bake is what it does to cyclists.  Indeed, plowing into the headwind, I learned it's possible for a 1700-foot descent to feel like it's mostly uphill.  Coming around one curve at about 40 mph, I hit a wind gust so strong that I was blown sideways; if I hadn't changed my front wheel, I'd have been toast before I knew it.

At long last, I reached the penultimate time station at the Imperial River Company, at mile 475.  45 miles to go!  But before taking it on, I chilled out at a convenience store for 15 minutes or so, putting my legs up, eating Coke and more ice cream, and generally preparing myself for the last leg.  If someone caught me there, that was fine; I was just making sure I had enough gas to reach the finish.

Stage 10: Finish
40 miles; 3,050 feet of climbing

The last stage brought with it one goal: make it 25 miles, to mile 500, at which point it was downhill to the finish.  The first climb, immediately out of the control, was a 5-mile, 800-foot affair that had no chance against my ice-cream-fueled enthusiasm.  But the second one reversed the descent we'd first hit more than 24 hours before; I recalled its being long, but it turned out to be nearly 9 miles and 1600 feet.  Sigh.  I was feeling good and cruising up it, but frankly, I was long past ready for this whole thing to be over with.  Max mentioned that a 35-hour finish was in the frame if I rode well, which itself was not so great given that I'd been on a 31-hour pace until a few hours before.  But it was a goal, and I used it as an excuse to hammer to the extent I could.

In fact, it looked like maybe I'd threaten the 34-hour mark, but I wound up flatting, for the first time in years, on the side of a relatively high-trafficked road.  The crew leaped into action admirably, but they wound up having to change the tire a couple of times due to air leaking around the valve.  I was happy to camp out on a guard rail and gaze into the distance, secure in the knowledge that the hard work was done.

The last hour or so of the ride brought out my best -- back in the aerobars and pushing the pace at every turn, finally feeling like a bike racer again instead of a lost explorer being stalked by a van.  Finally, 34 hours and 31 minutes after I'd set out, I reached the start once again, where George was waiting for me with a handshake, a medal, and bottle of local hard cider, and more good cheer than I'd thought possible.

Max, Sam, and me; it looks like I'm starting my nap early!


I wound up finishing second overall to Nigel, who really never had a weak moment from the look of things -- a 30:30 finish put him fully 4 hours ahead of me, and given that this course was longer and hillier than recent iterations of RAO had been, it's just a massive accomplishment, particularly for a guy racing his first ultra event.  Not that he was inexperienced on long rides; I learned that he'd ridden hilly 1200ks in the 52-hour range before, which made me feel better about being owned so completely.  Even when I was at my best, riding more powerfully than I thought possible for the first 23 hours or so, he was well out of sight, and I was never going to catch him.  I fell off the pace a bit in the last few hours, although I probably could have finished mid-33's if I hadn't indulged in the ice cream stops and avoided the flat tire.  It wouldn't have mattered in the final analysis, of course.

Still, I'm proud to have finished this one.  It's my longest "single day" ride to date had had twice the climbing of my previous "single day" best effort.  42,000 feet is no joke.  My time was an hour faster than the 375-miler with 33,000 feet of climbing that I'd done in May, so adding 150 miles and 9,000 feet of climbing while subtracting an hour represented an effort to which I'll happily sign my name.

Astonishingly, the one thing on my body that wasn't killing me was my feet.  This spring I ordered a custom pair of D2 shoes with orthotic inserts, and they arrived a week or so before the race.

I only had a chance to do one ride in them before RAO, so I didn't feel comfortable racing in them for 500 miles, but I did pull the custom orthotics out and put them in my older shoes for the race.  (I brought the older insoles in case of trouble.)  And, man: 520 miles with no hotfoot issues or any other type of discomfort, period.  Even with fairly exotic insoles, I've almost always suffered from hotfoot to the point that I've been forced to ride with my feet on top of my shoes for extended periods toward the end of ultra events.  If the shoes wind up living up to the insoles, this is going to be my best upgrade in years.

As far as RAO goes, it's a heck of a race.  The race field was on the small side for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the course is notoriously difficult, but George lives and breathes these events, and he does an amazing job of making everyone there feel like a legend.

Overall, compared to my expectations, I was struck not only by the consistent beauty of the course, but also by its variety.  I'd expected 500 miles of high-desert desolation, and while there certainly were points where I was ready to stop seeing scrub brush, things evolved from wind farms and wheat fields to pine-lined mountain climbs and arresting canyons, always with snow-capped volcanic peaks on the horizon.  It's a hard place not to love.  Compared to Silver State 508, my other experience at this distance, there really is no comparison: RAO is an order of magnitude more difficult, but also offers another level of beauty and variety.  I'd love to go back.