Monday, August 18, 2008

Nehalem 400k Pre-Ride Report

For the Oregon Randonneurs' late summer 400k, the Nehalem 400, we return to Forest Grove as a start location. Note that we're starting at the Forest Grove Inn, though, and not the usual Grand Lodge. I pre-rode the route this past Sunday to make sure that things would pass smoothly for the riders next week.

A 4:10 wake-up call and some hustle got me downtown and on the MAX in time to get me to Hillsboro by 6. That made my start time from Forest Grove 6:10. I went over familiar streets in Forest Grove to Gales Creek Road, and proceeded north. The stretch between Forest Grove and Vernonia hasn't changed much since the Birkie this spring; more leaves on the deciduous trees. There was an unleashed dog between highway 26 and Vernonia.

I arrived in Vernonia at 8:22 and took a quick break, and then went north on OR 47. The road carried me a couple miles past Pittsburgh, where I turned onto Apiary Road. Apiary is great. It starts off with a gentle climb of about 5.5 miles, and it only gets even remotely steep about 3/4 mile from the top. There terrain right next to the road is pleasantly tree-lined, though clearcuts are visible for quite a bit of the way. After the climb is a long straight descent, and another climb of about 3 miles puts you in Apiary. A few rolling hills, and you're at Old Rainier Road, where you make a hard left turn.

There's some work being done on this stretch of Old Rainier Road, so unfortunately the route detours onto Highway 30 for a mile or so. There's a lot of traffic, but it's flat and there's a huge, relatively clean shoulder so I don't imagine it'll be a problem for anyone. We pick up Old Rainier Road again at the flashing yellow light and head towards Alston and Mayger. Another quarter mile and there's a little country convenience store to refuel at if you need to top of your supplies.

From the store, you'll head north to Mayger. The Mayger Downing Community Church comes in about 5.5 miles, and there's an information control there (I arrived at 11:07), so don't miss it. On the way, there are about 4 rollers followed by a twisty fun descent, as well as some great views of the Columbia River. Past Mayger, there're some more creek sheds that you'll have to climb out of, but around Quincy, the undulations dial way back and you have a smooth, pleasant road into Clatskanie. I encountered an unbound dog on this stretch.

In Clatskanie, there's a market, a Safeway, a Subway, and Hump's Restaurant if you want a sit-down meal. Don't dawdle too much though, because the climb out of town is rather strenuous, and while there can be plenty of shade, you might get a little toasty if the sun is directly overhead. It's 12 miles from Clatskanie to Mist. The first 6 are almost all uphill, though the first mile is probably the steepest. There are rollers until mile 8 (along with some nice views of Rainier, St. Helens, and Adams if it's not too hazy), and then there's almost 4 miles of fast and technical descending. Then you're back on OR 202.

It's 5 miles to Birkenfeld and then another 12 to Jewell. Here's where I have some bad news: the Nehalem 400 has the bad luck to be scheduled for the same day as the Hood to Coast relay. So you'll be sharing the road with that event for these 17 miles. It's a pain in the neck, and I'm sorry for that. For my ride, it was hot and muggy around Birkenfeld, but 12 miles later, it was overcast and sprinkling at Jewell. Bring clothes for a wide temperature range. The country between Birkenfeld and Jewell is quite a bit like the country between Mist and Birkenfeld, but more undulating.

At Jewell, the course turns south onto Fishhawk Falls Highway, past the beautiful new school and following the Nehalem River through a notch between two big coastal mountains. It's a quick run to your next turn, onto Highway 26. The road goes under 26, before turning left up a ramp to the south side of the highway. To get on US 26 westbound, you'll have to make a left across both lanes of traffic. Be very careful! You may want to turn your blinkers on for this section.

Highway 26 is pretty bad. You're on it for 12 miles: 4.5 flat, 3.5 up, and 4 down. For the first 6 miles, the shoulder width varies from 3 to 24 inches. Fortunately, there's a passing lane about a mile into the climbing section, and the shoulder gets a little better, giving you some breathing room. The descent is awesome and partially makes up for the earlier bits: fast, non-technical, with plenty of room. At the bottom is a little gas station/convenience store, and the 3rd control. I got here at 3:22. This store is just past the halfway mark, but realize that the second half of the ride is a lot easier than the first half.

Once you're done doing your control stuff, you'll get back on the bike and turn south, onto OR 53, the Necanicum Highway. It's a mile of flat, 2 miles of easy climbing, and then 14 miles of downhill. This bit is fun and fast. It's twisty at the top, but the surface is smooth and the camber is good. Be careful of uphill traffic, however. Also, when the road straightens out, at least look over and get a glimpse of the really cool moss-covered slot canyon that holds Soapstone Creek. About a mile before you get to Nehalem Bay, you'll turn left onto Foley Creek Road, aka Miami River Road. There's a pain-in-the-neck cimb at the beginning, but it's otherwise a fairly placid road. It's 12 miles long, climbing gently for first 6 and descending gently for the second 6. Other than the occasional clearcut, the scenery is positively Tolkienian. Unfortunately, there were a couple of roaming dogs (wargs?) on this stretch.

The Miami River Road spits you out onto 101 just south of Garibaldi. You'll take 101south through Bay City, where there are a couple rollers.

(Thank you! I'll be here all week!)

Tillamook comes quickly after. The Fred Meyer is open until 11, and the Subway a little further down the road is open until 12. This will probably be your last chance to get food, unless you're quick enough to get to Beaver before 9. When I was riding, the day warmed up again when I arrived in Tillamook, after having been cold and grey since Jewell. The wind in the Tillamook Valley is inscrutable, seemingly blowing in random directions. 101 is straight and flat, and the shoulder is fine. The traffic falls off a couple miles south of town, but the surface gets a little rough as you climb up to Hemlock. Once you pass the junction to Sandlake, the surface is excellent, the shoulder fades away, and it's all downhill to Beaver.

In Beaver, there's a gas station that is the location of the 4th control, which I got to at 7:21 PM. Conveniently enough, it's the place where you'll turn off of 101 to get onto the Nestucca River Road. The first 7 miles of the road take you through familiar coast range pasture land to Blaine, where the environment switches to alder forest. Just past Blaine, there is some road work for the next 4 miles, from milepost 7 to milepost 11. BE CAREFUL on this stretch! There's loose gravel and gravel-filled ruts across the road. Sometimes, it's best to go over into the left lane (just keep an eye out for oncoming traffic!) This is NOT the infamous stretch of gravel road on the Nestucca; that comes later and is actually a much nicer surface. There are 5 campgrounds on this stretch of road, each with water and pit toilets.

From 101 to the top is around 34 miles, depending on how you measure. It's a pretty easy grade for the most part; it basically stair-steps all the way up, only getting steep just below the top. You'll know you're about to start your descent when you get to the reservoir. I'm afraid the descent is pretty disappointing. It's too technical to get much speed up, and you spend an awful lot of time climbing. It dumps you right out in Carlton, the penultimate control. From Carlton, you'll simply get on OR 47 and take that all the way back to OR 8, and the Forest Grove Inn. 47 is fast, flat, and there's a good shoulder the whole way. There should be almost no traffic during the time of when riders are passing through. I finished at 12:01 AM, for a ride time of 17:51.

Camp 18
Necanicum Junction (until 9)
Tillamook (Fred Meyer until 11, Subway until 12)
Beaver (until 9)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

6/28/2008 to 7/1/2008 -- The Cascade 1200

At the end of the first day of the Cascade 1200, I didn’t know what to do. I was rolling down a river grade towards Naches, the first overnight control. The first day had been hard – really hard: tough climbs in brutal, brutal heat, and sheer distance. And there was plenty more climbing, heat, and distance promised. I was finishing up the first day okay, in good time (it was just after nightfall) and feeling reasonably strong. But three more days of that kind of effort, of climbing mountain passes in the desert in triple figure heat, simply wasn’t in the cards. How was I going to “solve” this ride? What strategy could I take to avoid riding in misery for 3 days, or worse, DNFing? I didn’t know what to do.

I did have resources at my disposal. I had access to my drop bag in a few miles, my Bacchetta Aero is comfortable, fast and has good lights. I was well ahead of schedule, and the next 100 miles were populated enough to provide good services. By the time I rolled into Naches, I had an idea.

I approached Bob Brudvik, who was signing riders in. “I’m going back out there,” I said.

“You are?” His eyes said, “Oh, really?”

“Yep. It’s cool out there; it’s actually a nice temperature to ride in right now. Why waste that? I’m going to eat, clean up, and change clothes, and then I’m riding on.”

“A bold plan. The route comes right by here again; you can have breakfast when you get back.”

So back on the road I went, with some trepidation. I’ve done plenty of night rides, but it still takes a bit of nerving up to leave a control at midnight to ride until the sun comes up and beyond. I tried to talk the other riders into joining me, but while they saw the merit in it, none would brave the dark with me. So I pressed on alone. I would ride through the night, finish the second day early, sleep during the heat of the day, and then get up for the third day while it was still cool, and so avoid riding with the sun at its height as much as possible.

It was a good plan. I caught up with Micah Fritzinger, and we rode up to Lodgepole together to visit Mark Thomas, manning the control there in the moonless night like a mysterious, grizzled oracle. I rode down alone, because the recumbent descends like a rocket sled and Micah simply couldn’t hang on, and I arrived back at Naches with the sunrise. That let me get breakfast from the control, and press on before the day warmed up too much. I covered a lot of ground that morning, and it wasn’t until I was through the Rattlesnake Hills, just outside of Hanford, that the almost thirty hours straight of riding and the heat of the day caught up with me. I limped into the Vernita rest area, with 55 miles to go in the hottest part of the day. It was a good plan, and it almost worked.

In Vernita, I ate my last sandwich and refilled my empty water bottles. I really needed the nap I had been putting off to keep pedaling while the day wasn’t at its hottest. Now, it was just too hot and too bright to sleep. Albert Meerscheidt gave me a Gatorade and a pat on the back, and I was off.

I crawled over the next 15 miles to the control at Mattawa. The irrigated farmland around the Columbia River on a 100 degree day is a working definition of hell if you’re on a bicycle. In order to keep their crops from just drying up and blowing away, the farmers there dump lots of water on them. In the hot air, much of that water quickly evaporates. All that evaporated water stays in the air, raising the humidity, and making life absolutely miserable for creatures like randonneurs who count on evaporative cooling to keep from dying.

I sat in the control in Mattawa for a good long time, contemplating my fate. Just the 15 miles from Vernita had left my water bottles almost completely dry and taken almost an hour and a half. With no services for at least the next 30 miles and the day only heating up, I had no idea how I was going to make it the rest of the way to Quincy. I took in some much-needed calories and tried not to think about it.

Finally, when I could procrastinate no longer, I said to hell with it, and got back on my bike. My refreshed ice sock would be completely melted in 8 miles, and even with 3 water bottles, I would probably be out of drinking water before George. But I wasn’t getting any closer to the overnight control just sitting there, and sometimes you just have to take that leap of faith.

The furnace outside sapped my will to live. I thought about what my ride-through-the-night gambit had gotten me. Even at my current snail’s pace I’d get into Quincy early enough. But the area beyond was not conducive to another night ride – there were almost no services there beyond what SIR were providing. So I was limited as to how early a start I could get the next morning. While I had 55 miles of misery today, I was looking at double that for tomorrow.

All the while, I grew increasingly anxious as the water levels in my bottles plummeted and their temperatures skyrocketed. I was maybe halfway to George, just past the first climb on Burke-Beverly Road. Finally, luckily, an angel of an SIR volunteer drove by and pulled ahead to see if I needed anything. With a fresh ice in the sock and refilled bottles, I limped into Quincy.

And none too soon. I was a grumpy, crabby mess. The heat had stewed my brain for 4 hours in equations whose conclusion was that the next day would be a day of torture. I didn’t see any way that I was going to finish this thing, even though I was in a position that almost every other rider on the course would envy. I needed to cool down, I needed to eat, I needed to clean up, I needed to change clothes. Most of all, I needed to sleep.

In the control, I vented, and made kind of a jerk of myself.

I showered and changed.

I ate something.

I checked into a hotel, and went to sleep at 7:30 PM and woke up at 3 AM. Seven and a half hours. The best night’s sleep I’ve had in 2 years.

The ride the next day went a lot better than I had imagined it would. And I realized that I had forgotten the cardinal rule of ultra-distance riding: things never just get worse. These events are so long, you always go through peaks and valleys. And just because you’ve been suffering for a while, that does not mean that you will only continue to suffer. The hill will end, the wind will shift, that Payday bar will hit your bloodstream, or you’ll take a rest, and you will feel better.

I arrived in Mazama in the early evening, the fifth rider in, to applause. My first words as I rolled up were, “THAT was more the hell like it!”

I didn't take either picture shown here. Thanks are due to the lovely people who did.