Thursday, July 26, 2007

7/21/2007 to 7/22/2007 -- Race Across Oregon

There will never be a book written on my ultra-racing exploits. But if there was, George Thomas and Terri Gooch's Race Across Oregon would have to feature prominently. It's hard to believe that, a little over three years ago, I thought it crazy to attempt it as part of a four-man team. My how things change: last year, when I was looking for my next challenge after riding in the Furnace Creek 508, and after the memories of the pain and fatigue had dissipated, the race that starts right out my backdoor suggested itself as an entirely reasonable (ha!) proposition. I already knew the course intimately, transportation of myself and my bike to the start line wasn't a problem, and it couldn't be *that* much harder than the 508, right?

That first factor was more of a positive than you might think. Race Across Oregon features a tough, tough course, and it would seem that in knowing it so well, I should know better. But it is also true beyond any doubt that cycling over ground that you know well simply feels easier and faster than riding a course that you've never seen, and that's an advantage not to be underestimated. Having done much of the RAO course 3 times, I knew the location of every turn and the length of every climb; I could visualize the whole thing. And besides, I had been designated climber for OHPV's relay teams the past two years, so all I was adding to the stuff that I had done before were the downhills (heh!)

I was also lucky to be able to draw from a pool of experienced crew members who had helped with the relays for my support team. Edna Van Gundy, Bruce Parker, Lonnie Morse, and Mandy Achterman stepped up and did a bang-up job keeping me moving down the road, and Edna's husband Dave also helped in relief. They were unfailingly cheerful and responsive in tending to my needs, which is critical because on an ultra race, I need to devote as much time and energy as I possibly can to just pushing the pedals. The more of the other stuff they can take off my plate, the better race I'll have.

The morning of the race came, and as usual, the night before I slept very little. Edna arrived just after 4 to take me to the airport Holiday Inn for my 5 am start. It was an unseasonably dark and dismal morning, which, in fact was a blessing. I would get past the rain after I crested the summit of Mount Hood, and the forecast over the rest of the course was for really lovely, mild temperatures. In spite of the drizzle, I made a game-time decision to just start off in a long sleeve wool jersey and my knee-length cycling shorts. The wool jersey did a great job of keeping me quite comfortable, even as the drizzle accumulated on it.

We rolled down the familiar Marine Drive in a parade start, and just before we got to Troutdale and the official start of competition, I got a flat. I hoped that this was just me getting my issues out of the way early, rather than an omen of things to come. I fixed the tire quickly, we proceeded on to Troutdale, and then turn right, up the wall that is Buxton Hill, and the race began.

A few riders made it to the top before me, but me and my Aero shined on the rollers around Orient. I was pushing a little, maybe getting too competitive this early in the race, but it really just felt like I was getting warmed up and settling into a groove. I got to Boring, and then Sandy at the front of the pack.

I made it through Sandy, and then disaster struck; though I didn't know it at the time. I was waiting at the last traffic light in town, it turned green, and I accelerated through it, when I heard a pop, and it felt like the drive-side seat stay had slipped. I assumed that I hadn't sufficiently tightened down the clamps on them, cursed, and pulled over to tighten them down. I cursed my luck as four riders passed me while I was making my adjustment. The clamps hadn't seemed that loose, though, and the bike still felt wonky as I reeled in several of the riders who had passed me on the descent to the Sandy River valley.

I caught the lead rider again, and took a quick break near Zig Zag to empty my bladder and change to a lighter jersey. Starting off again, I heard another pop, and again, it felt like my seat stay had slipped. At this point, I torqued my left knee trying to unclip to catch myself. I called my crew over, but again, we could not detect any lack of tightness in the seat clamps, so I pedaled on.

The bike felt like a noodle at that point. Then, just past Rhodedendron, I got another pop, and I knew something was seriously wrong, and it wasn't the seat stay. I motioned for my crew to pull over immediately. I told them that there was something dangerously wrong with the bike, and I didn't know what it was. Fortunately, I had the foresight to bring my trusty titanium Aero as a backup bike. Unfortunately, since it was the backup, I hadn't been quite as diligent in dialing it in in my pre-race maintenance. I switched bikes as quickly as I could, and pushed on up over Mount Hood, but the the brake pads were giving me serious rub on the rims the whole way. Degree of difficulty, man -- it seems to be just a part of my life sometimes.

The difficulty that I had with the climb, coupled with the loss of my first-line bike and my distance behind the leaders put me in kind of a low place. I had really thought that with all my hard work this year, that I had a chance to win the whole race. But given how much trouble I was having so early, I felt like I had already been beaten. Not a good place to be, mentally, when you're facing another 475 miles and 37,000 feet of climbing.

I got over Summit pass and the drizzle slackened. Then I crested Barlow and Bennett passes, and the sky lightened, and it warmed up. Following that, I got a screaming downhill on highway 35, and I saw my friend Nate, who was camping near the course, and who was there by the side of the road with his friends to ring cowbells and shout encouragement. All of which added up to raise my spirits. I decided I wasn't out of this thing yet. I motioned my crew over at the bottom of forest service road 44, and we opened my brake calipers wide, to get rid of the rub, and then I pushed on up over Surveryor's Ridge towards Dufur. On that climb -- perhaps my favorite of the whole course -- I finally found a good rhythm. I passed two or three riders on that road, and screamed past Dufur, and up the broad desert climb of US 197 to the top of Tygh Ridge. I was right back in that thing.

At that point, I confered with my crew. They wanted to go ahead now and fuel up in Maupin, so that they could give me lots of support on Bakeoven Road (which is every bit as hot and desolate as the image that its name conjures). I okayed this, even though my instincts screamed no, that this was too early, and that they were leaving me alone for too long. My head was totally in the race, and I didn't have the mental faculties to put up an argument. The van zoomed ahead.

I roared down into Tygh Valley, across the bottom, and up the other side. On the climb to the plateau above Maupin, I clawed my way into 3rd place or so. But just before the top, I heard the ineveitable hiss as my bike's handling on the rear end went all flat-fishy. I walked my bike the last couple hundred feet to the top of the hill, where a couple course marshals were observing things. I made a couple snarky remarks about how this just wasn't me day, and they were sympathetic.

I fell into a low place, all the lower for having come so close to bouncing back and rejoining the elite. My knee was starting to act up from having been twisted on the other side of the mountain. And I was standing by the side of the road in the middle of a desert, walking in a bike race. The letters D, N, and F came into my head. Not to say that I wanted to throw in the towel, but my head was considering the possibility.

And at that moment, I thought about James Yee. How, during the Glacier ride, he kept plugging along, carefully managing his time to pedal 1000 kilometers without the benefit of more than 2 consecutive hours of sleep. Often passing people who had hours earlier decided to DNF because they thought didn't have enough time to get to the next control. You can argue about how much success I've had as a distance rider and ultra racer, but however much I've had, it'd come easy for me to that point. My toughness had never been tested the way James Yee's has, or the way Patty-Jo Struve's has. I decided right then and there that this was my challenge. I wasn't shooting for the podium anymore. Boo-frickin'-hoo. There was plenty of time left on the clock, and I was still capable of pedalling. I made up my mind, I was in this thing until I finished or they dragged me off the bike.

My friends Keith and Alex showed up in their red Prius. I told them the situation, and they tore off to find my crew. Then a couple minutes later, my crew appeared in the distance. They pulled up to me and threw a new wheel on the bike, and I took off down the road. I had gotten maybe a half mile away when my front wheel went flat. I could still see the van. I waited a few minutes before they pulled back onto the road to catch me, and then we swapped out that wheel, too. I decided this second flat, following so closely on the heels of the first was the universe's sophomoric idea of a joke, which only made me more determined to press on.

Back onto the bike, across the rest of the desert plateau, and down the slalom into Maupin. Through town, across the river, and a hard left into a brick wall. Or, more precisely, the steep switchbacks of Bakeoven Road. Same difference. The day was heating up, my knee was bugging me, and the hill was tough. In spite of that, there's nothing like forward progress to raise one's spirits.

I winched my way up the hill, grinding up the steep initial 4 miles out of the canyon. My water supply started getting low right when I needed some extra to dump over my head to quell the midday sun, and I wondered where my crew was. Fortunately, it wasn't long before Keith and Alex were there to top off my bottles. I made it to the rim of the canyon, and regrouped with the van. Then it was time to tackle the most desolate section of the course, the desert rollers and steep climb up to Shaniko. Not a single tree nor a speck of green was anywhere to be seen, not one bit of shade to be found for the next 20 miles. I made it to the base of the climb up to 97 in fairly good shape, but my feet were starting to get the numb-hot sensation that presaged my biggest obstacle in ultraracing. I gritted my way up the hill and into Shaniko, but by the time I got there, my feet were in agony.

I took a rest stop at the gas station in that little ghost town, and had a V8. I switched the inserts in my shoes, too, in the hope that that would alleviate the foot problems for a little while. While I rested, a couple of the relay teams caught and passed me. Then it was time to get back on the bike to do the gentle climb up out of town, which I shared with the women's Hammershark team rider for a couple miles. I told her that there was an awesome technical descent down into Antelope coming up that she'd love, and not long after that, I got to do it myself.

I roared down through Antelope, and began to climb up along the creek bed on the other side. The climb out of Antelope is moderately difficult, but I've always had a great deal of affection for it. It winds up the hillside next to a creek drainage, and as the road carries you around its corners, the dry landscape unfolds in a series of gorgeous vistas. I've always felt that this part of the course was most like a tour stage on some imaginary Col in Provence. In years before, it felt all the more so because the Speedwagon team would usually catch a few riders there, and seeing the cyclists and their support ahead and behind on the winding road really put me in mind of the fact that this was a real race. This time, Keith conjured the illusion by dancing around on the side of the road with his shirt off like some kind of cycling hooligan.

The most spectacular vista was reserved for the top of the hill, though. As I crested it, I saw the basalt crenelations around the John Day River for miles to the north and south, with the patchy clouds of the sky breaking up its brilliant blue. I knew it was coming, but it still took my breath away, as it has every time I've cycled this course. I scarcely had time to take in the scene before gravity took me by the tether and I was doing 45 mph, with the moderately technical curves in the road demanding my full attention.

Before I knew it, I was at the river and sailing up the mile climb on the other side, then down the other side to the John Day Fossil Beds. There, the parched vegetation below the dramatic rock formations gave the landscape an alien quality. I wended my way up the canyon amidst those formerly distant crenelations, on a road grade that started off gentle but which gradually steepened. Finally I reached Pine Creek and knew that it was all business all the way to the top. My feet were bothering me again and the next five miles were a slog. But I kept pedaling, and when you keep pedaling, eventually you get there. I made it to the top and easily rolled down into time station 2, the town of Fossil.

At Fossil, I realized that I needed a break and that I needed to make some changes. The Perpetuem just wasn't doing it for me -- I was taking it in as fast as I could, but I simply wasn't getting any energy from it. I felt enervated, and my mouth was starting to get some painful sores. I changed my nutrition plan as much as I could with what I had to work with, asking my crew to emphasize variety as much as possible. Stuart Kronenberg, crewing for Team Falcon, was a huge help in donating two precious bottles of Ensure from their stores. I also changed insoles again, to get my feet back on track. While I was recovering, Adam Garmon showed up and took a rest on the bench next to me. He looked in a bad way, but I encouraged him as much as I could, reassuring him that he could look forward to things getting much better. I hope that he took some comfort from what I said, and was gratified to see that he successfully finished the race.

It was a profound discovery for me when I realized that your condition doesn't just go downhill at these events. It has been a huge source of strength for me to know that just because things are bad now does not mean that they will only get worse. You'll have good times and bad times, and then more good times. And when you're having one of those bad times, it's just a huge mental advantage to know that it's temporary. That is just the way of things when you're doing 500 miles. A century, sure, your condition might just go downhill, but an ultra event leaves plenty of time for fluctuations.

Knowing the course, though, I knew that both Adam and I were due for a good spell. The first 200 miles of Race Across Oregon has an elevation profile that looks like a saw blade. Once you get to Zig Zag, the only stretch between there and Fossil that lays off the climbing long enough to really be considered a rest is the descent down into Dufur. Everywhere else, you're either climbing or "reseting" for your next climb. But once you've gotten to Fossil, the course has done its worst. Before each of the next three steep climbs you get a long, relatively flat section that lets you recover and stay loose, so it's much easier to tackle each of those climbs as a single piece. It's the one-two combination that's really brutal.

Well, time to get back on the bike. A pretty, wooded stretch through pastures, with an easy climb up to Butte Creek Pass followed Fossil. And on the other side of the pass, a supersonic, 11 mile non-technical descent down to Service Creek and the John Day River again. We took a quick stop at Service Creek to buy some fruit and fruit juice to bring some variety to my diet, and then I settled into a groove as I pedaled along at river grade for the next 40 miles. I made Spray by nightfall, which made me feel good (the Speedwagon teams only got a bit further before dark), my feet were feeling fine in the cooling evening air, and I had plenty of energy when I got to Monument.

The flat section up to Monument is something of a mixed blessing. It gives you time to recover, but it also gives you plenty of time to contemplate what lies beyond. And that is a steep, winding, brutal 11 mile climb. As I have said before, it's the kind of road that makes you wonder what would possess someone to build a road there, rather than choosing some cheaper, easier option. Like on-demand helicopter service to shuttle people between the top and bottom of the hill, for instance. It's beautiful country, but it's the kind of road that one should not be on if one is prone to vertigo, so it was good to tackle it at night.

As I gained altitude, the air took on a biting chill. My knee started to remind me that I was not at 100%. The road snaked up and around switchbacks, and onto the tops of ridges. Just past Hamilton, the route tracked along a stream cut up to the plateau at the peak. Then, finally, I crested the top, and flew down the other side to get a running start on the rolling hills that come after the major climb. I still had enough oomph in the legs to power through, and before I knew it, I was sailing down into Long Creek, the third time station and the furthest out point on the course.

It was time for a nap. The need to sleep was starting to wash over me like the incoming tide. I took a seat in the van, and told my crew to wake me up in 15 minutes. I closed my eyes, and let unconsciousness take me over. The next thing I knew, I heard my breath catch slightly, and I roused myself. It had been 10 minutes, and I was ready to go again.

Up out of Long Creek I pursued Bruce Carroll to the highest point on the course until Timberline. I caught him at the top as he paused to bundle up, and plummetted into the gloom down to the ghost town of Fox. After a gentle but extended climb I reached Bear Creek Summit. Then the fun began.

From Bear Creek Summit, it's 16 miles of consistent creek grade downhill to Mt. Vernon, where the course makes a right turn onto Highway 26. Highway 26 spends another 35 or 40 miles tracking the John Day River with a downhill grade of maybe a half percent. It's a fast, fast section; not like a downhill, but in a way better. It's a flat that makes you feel strong. And boy, did it make me feel strong. I got to Mt. Vernon and passed the psychic wreckage of a couple of my fellow racers who were on the verge of throwing in the towel. Then I wound up the cranks and simply did not let up. I had to pee, but I just was not going to stop. The bike flew low as the highway snaked back and forth across the river valley. I found myself passing through Dayville, and then not much later, arriving at the entrance to the Picture Canyon. I allowed myself a quick stop there, just as the sky was starting to show the first glimmers of the breaking day. I was encouraged by my progress, calculating that I would be on Ochoco Pass before things got too hot.

The river to this point had followed the track that one expects of a conventional river. The John Day runs through a broad, flat valley, with hills on either side. At the Picture Canyon, though, the river goes crazy and just up and flows right into one of the walls that had bordered it to that point. The water takes a path into a severe, vertical notch with a tidy shelf that is just big enough to hold the highway comfortably. We plunged into the rock with the road and the river, and followed US 26 up Rock Creek to begin the long, gentle ascent to Keyes Creek Summit. A few miles in, I needed another catnap, so my crew and I took another break.

I hadn't seen this stretch of road since my reconnaissance tour with Carolyn, two and a half years ago. The scenery is quite captivating, and features several distinct sections as you follow the creek to its headwaters. As I was climbing, I got my first indication that John Schlitter and Sarah Kay Carrell's team was catching up to me when I saw their crew go by. Before the riders also caught me, I reached the top and flew down the steep drop past Mitchell, the town with the caged bear at the gas station.

Mitchell was a blur, and beyond it the road once again put me on an uphill creek grade, which this time was steeper and longer than I remembered. I slogged along, and kept thinking I was closer to the main event than I actually was. Then I finally got to the base of Ochoco Pass just as John Schlitter caught me. I wasn't feeling particularly strong, and my knee was talking to me, but when John went by I somehow tapped into my Ochoco Pass mojo and kept him within sight, just as I had kept Gerry's Kids within striking distance back in 2005. It didn't go by easily, but over the course of my four ascents of Ochoco the climb and I have developed a healthy respect for each other, and it succumbed after I put in the necessary work. Towards the top, John fell off the pace and I edged him for the polka-dot jersey, but he returned the favor on the downhill and I didn't see him again.

The descent from the pass to Prineville is much more dramatic than the grade from Mt. Vernon to Dayville, but a headwind made it more work, even in the midst of the lush pine forests and twisty canyons on that side of the mountains. At least it felt like more work. To be honest, I was pretty out of it for this stretch. Don't tell my crew, but I was on the verge of nodding off again near the reservoir. The uptick in traffic as I got closer to Prineville jolted me back into the present, though, and by the time I reached time station 4, I was pretty alert again, if somewhat shellacked.

I rolled into Prineville and took a long breather on 25 square feet of green grass in the gas station parking lot. I was once again feeling a lack of calories; the Perpetuem was becoming less and less sufficient. I was stalled, basically. I determined to take a rest and try to get some more calories into me, and to get as much off the pure liquid as I possibly could.

The crew took a rest too, but being as it was full daylight again, their close attention was once again no longer mandatory, so I took off while they were still getting reorganized. I headed out of town and across the rollers around the Crooked River Grassland still feeling kind of enervated. But then the food kicked in, and I got some really enthusiastic and timely encouragement from some of the teams and crews that passed me, and my pace picked up. In this stretch, Dave Van Gundy brought Mandy Achterman as a relief pitcher for Bruce Parker, and their energy and perspective were a big help, too.

Madras came, and I pulled up to the flatlands above town, though there was not enough of a tailwind for me to take the hill in my big ring as I had last year. A few flat miles across the irrigated plateau, and then the world fell away and the road ribboned down a ledge on the canyon wall to the Deschutes River. I asked Mandy to keep the cars from passing me too closely by following me down, which she did. At the bottom, they zipped off to find a place to let me leap frog. I was low on water, and after passing one perfectly good pull out after another, I was getting pretty nervous about my hydration and my tires. One team crew on the roadside gave me cheery encouragement, to which I responded with a panicked "where the **** is my crew??" Finally, I caught up with them at the turn off to Kah Nee Ta, and I got my water.

At the turn off, I made a mistake. As you leave US 26 to head north into the reservation, the road climbs rather steeply. Well, I was feeling pretty good, and felt like I was starting the home stretch, so I hit the hill pretty aggressively. My knee really didn't like that, and let me know in no uncertain terms. I backed way off on the next couple climbs. Also, the day was really heating up, and there's nowhere on the course that you feel the day's heat more than on the reservation. Correspondingly, my feet, which had been so trouble-free in the cool night and morning air, started to hurt again.

I took it easy on the ridiculous technical descent down to the junction to Kah Nee Ta, and took it easy going up the other side, winching my way up the ridiculous climb from Kah Nee Ta to Simnasho. I was really starting to boil under the sun, and I had to stop halfway up that steep, switchback filled hill. Over the top, on the flat section to the village, there was none of the hoped-for tailwind (as we'd had in previous years) and there were several miles of abysmal chip seal. Past the village the road improved, and I did the rollers and the last climb out of the reservation. I knew the descent to Wapinitia very well, and just let the bike roll through its twisty turns.

Then I turned west. That just left me with one more hill: Mt. Hood. I truly was in the home stretch now. I just needed one more break in Pine Grove. I raided the van for whatever actual, real food I could find. I even grabbed some food from my crew's stores that they had been saving for themselves, which they very generously offered. Thus fortified, I stayed on the bike the rest of the way.

Pulling myself up 216, 26, 43, and 48 was an exercise in perseverence. My energy was low, my knee had devolved since I had stupidly pushed too hard on it in Warm Springs, and I was physically tired and mentally exhausted. I was out of tricks. I had no more cards to play, no more resources except sheer, blind, mule-headed determination. But that's the nice thing about stubborness; when you have it, it's the last thing to desert you.

I got to the start of forest service road 43 at around 7, which I thought was quite respectably early. I zipped down to forest service road 48, and hummed along that road up to highway 35. I was almost cheery again as Edna passed me pieces of orange from the car window. We got several spectacular views of the mountain with a cloud draped over it in the waning daylight. Then I regained the ground that I had covered in the other direction the day before, and soon found myself at the bottom of the climb up to Timberline.

I've done lots of climbs in this state. I've done just about all of them on the course, most several times. Before this year's Race Across Oregon, however, I'd never done the 6 miles from Government Camp up to Timberline in their entirety. I had mastered Ochoco Pass, I had figured out the Monument climb. The steep pitches on either side of Clarno on the John Day River were friends of mine and Bakeoven held no fear for me. Timberline was still an unknown, though. I truly was in the home stretch now, so I attacked it. Judging from the parts of it that I had done, when I'm fresh, I should be able to do it without even needing my little chainring.

I was decidedly not fresh.

I covered the first mile quite strongly before my knee started complaining and I could simply no longer sustain the energy. I settled into a slightly slower, but still steady pace, and resigned myself to a weak debut time for this hill. Things went fine until I was 2.5 miles from the top, when my knee decided to stop working altogether. I could no longer exert any force with my left leg on the pedals without experiencing excruciating pain. I bellowed in pain and frustration.

I signaled my crew to pull over, and they helped me off the bike. We tried a number of things, including walking and a little rest, but I couldn't go far at all before the knee flared up again. Finally, Mandy made me down a fistful of ibuprofen, and Lonnie strapped an icepack to my knee. If this didn't work, then I would just walk the rest of the way -- as much admiration and respect as I have for the guy, there was absolutely no way I was going to join the John Spurgeon club, and I had plenty of time. Fortunately, there was no need. The NSAIDs and ice pack did the trick, and I -- gingerly -- winched myself the rest of the way up the hill, in the dark, to Timberline Lodge, where George and Terri and my father and my best friend were all waiting. I came around the last corner to a cheer, and crossed the finish line before collapsing on the ground.


Blogger Vik said...

Great report - as usual. I'm just starting to learn not to sweat a low point on a LD ride as there is time to go up and down a couple times and still finish successfully. Although I'm sorry you had some rough luck it is a good lesson to just keep turning those pedals until you get to the finish.

What ended up being wrong with your CF Aero? Glad you had a spare bike.

Looking forward to your PBP report.

Any interest in the Rocky Mtn 1200 in 2008 [assuming it is a go]?

7:25 PM  
Anonymous Sarah said...

Seconded - great report!

I'm the 4-person-team Hammersharks rider who rode with you near Shaniko. Its amazing you guys can do this solo!

Reading the report brought back a lot of great memories!

9:46 AM  

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