Sunday, October 3, 2010

My Quest for the 600k: I get by with a little help from my friends!

You don't know about me, without you have read a blog post by the name of My Quest for the 600k: DNF, but that ain't no matter. That post was made by CurioRando, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another...

OK, I just stole from Mark Twain there as he begins Huckleberry Finn and asks his reader to check in first with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I remember reading Tom Sawyer and just soaking up all that adventuring and adventuresome spirit. It may be, in fact, Tom's and Huck's fault that I've become a rando. Every brevet departure after all is just another excuse for adventure-seeking around 200k, 300k, 400k or 600k worth of corners.

But what I'm really trying to say here is that to understand this post about my first successful bid for a 600k medal and therefore a Super Randonneur medal, I implore you, dear reader, to check out my previous post about my unsuccessful attempt.

The other thing to understand about me is that I live in a beautiful part of our world, the great Northwest corner of the United States. Rain forest, Puget Sound, famous Steelhead Trout streams, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Saint Helens, Salmon, Seattle.... I count myself very privileged to live where I do.

But I am a mossback. I miss the Sun; I miss the sandy beaches, and oh when I landed at the San Jose Norm Mineta Airport for the Surf City 600k hosted by the Santa Cruz Randonnuers, did it feel good! It was 94 degrees Fahrenheit that Friday and as the Sun soaked into my tender Northwest skin the world was looking brighter already.

I had struggled with intestinal flu the week leading up to the brevet and had to take two sick days. I hadn't been very upbeat about this 600k because I didn't feel at all like I was starting with all my tanks full up. Nonetheless, I was determined, and when my motel room wasn't yet ready I walked the two blocks to the beach and ripped off my shoes, socks and shirt and frolicked in the waves with everybody else: lovers, junior high boys and girls from out of town coming for a track meet, couples with young toddlers, seniors...and lots of sea lions.

After my little romp I went back to the motel and put my bike back together since I had to pack it for the flight down. All was good with the bike and a little ride around the neighborhood confirmed she was ready. I, however, still didn't feel 100%, and the choice of a cheaper motel room led to a really poor night's sleep. Lesson logged.

By next morning, the pre-brevet excitement had set in, and I was the second to arrive at the start. Bill Bryant, Brevet Organizer and randonneuring godfather pictured below, greeted us riders. I have this picture because a thoughtful fellow rando, Joe, offered to take a photo of Bill and me together. I didn't know it then, but I would get to know Joe over the next day or so. This was a hint at Joe's thoughtfulness and generosity to come.

The Sun came up as we headed North from our start at the Lighthouse and Surfing Museum in Santa Cruz. I found myself in the company of Joe and Doug. Both Joe and Doug were Googlers, they said, meaning they worked at Google. They are planning a trip to Florida for the 1000k there in October so they were riding together, and I kind of tagged along.

Some of the time I felt their cruising speed was a little too fast for me, but I hung on whether they were eager for my company or not, and eventually we became a trio. Soon, after reaching the Northernmost point at Moss Beach we headed into the hills, Redwoods, and heat.

Skylonda was at the top of one of the tough climbs, and what a wild place it is. A bikers' oasis. Both motorcycles and bicycles. There seemed to be three crowds: grizzled Harley riders, sleek Japanese racebike riders (many of them extremely dangerous in their riding style whipping downhill at ungodly speeds), and us cyclists. But I'm talking by the dozens in each camp.

Below is a photo of Doug, Joe's pal, as we entered the Redwood country.

Here, in one of the shadier patches, Joe leads Doug and me up a climb. Looking at the photo I can almost smell the heated wood and the dry but salty air.

After a while we headed back into Santa Cruz along the coast again, and said goodbye to daylight and the ocean as we headed for the Salinas Valley. Throughout all this time Joe and Doug were very helpful in describing what we were about to get into, the terrain, the weather--all very welcoming to this stranger from up North.

As you can read from Joe's jersey, he had a great deal of experience in California long distance cycling.

Through the night, I picked up a few tips about night riding. Joe advocated caffeine tablets bit in half, chewed slightly, and then tucked under the tongue. I found this way superior to taking whole tablets, and I think I ended up taking five half tablets altogether. For a while, Doug suffered with staying awake, and we all seemed to take turns as to who felt worst at any given time.

We also discovered to our dismay, that the kilometers didn't roll along as we'd hoped after what we thought was the worst of the climbing. We figured, wrongly, that after we slew the hill country in the North that we'd churn up the kilometers and we fairly fantasized about where and when and for how long we'd sleep.

Bill Bryant had been very clear in his pre-ride report that it was crucial to leave the Southern end of the Salinas Valley early in the morning so we could return back toward Santa Cruz without fighting the dreaded, infamous and unfortunately highly predicable Northwest winds. These winds come off the shore and hustle down the Salinas Valley like clockwork: between 10am and Midnight, every day. Doug explained that the Salinas Valley is perfectly aligned along a Northwest-Southeast axis and forms the perfect wind tunnel effect.

So, now in the dead of the night (though with a fabulous full moon), we re-calculated and discovered that we really had little to no time for sleep if we were going to head Northwest back to Santa Cruz before the winds started to howl. Hmmm.

At his point, Joe also did an additional mental calculation. He knew he'd be doing the very, very flat Florida 1000k in three weeks and he also knew he doesn't do well without sleep. The conclusion he reached--and not in the brain and body-fatigued way in which I had DNF'd in my previous attempt--that he was better off marshaling his resources for the 1000k. And so he announced to Doug and me that at the turnaround controle in San Ardo, he would stop.

Now this unnerved me. Joe had become the veteran--he regaled Doug and me in many a PBP tale--the guy I was looking to help us make it through. If Joe wasn't going to finish, what did it say about my chances. Ugh. Rumblings of my previous DNF started to roll through my psyche.

And then the Sun came up, and things took on a new cast. We rolled into the San Ardo controle, and it looked like a war zone. Other randos were sitting on do I say this? various forms of stupors. Some had given up keeping their eyes open and another had opened eyes, but clearing nobody was home. Wow!

I immediately started to pepper Bill Bryant with questions. For the uninitiated, I was downplaying it when I referred to Bill as a randonneuring godfather. He first went to PBP in 1983. He is past president of Randonneurs USA, and was one of the founding members. And what I found most of all, was that Bill was patient, abiding, and a rock.

He met each of my panicked questions with the assurance of having been there before. He didn't shrink from once again noting the power of those Northwest winds, but he didn't get all freakazoid about it. But because he saw those winds as a force to be reckoned with even in his understated way, I listened. I also met Lois Springsteen, our current RUSA president there. She had started the brevet as a rider but was not well when she started and came to think better of staying with it. So, she too was a volunteer at that war zone of a controle.

As an aside, Lois and Bill are married and when I deposited my drop bag at their house the night before the brevet began I spied their truck with California license plates that said: "RUSA 7 (heart) 8". Bill is RUSA member #7 and Lois is RUSA member #8. Very sweet.

What I finally came to terms with was the fact that I was not going to sleep until I was done, and that making it was very far from certain. I also learned we weren't bringing up the back of the pack as I had assumed. Others came in after we did. So what did I do?

Well, Joe graciously offered Doug and me any goodies we wanted out of his drop bag. I raided it like a pirate, and swiped all his Shot Bloks. In answering one of my barrage of questions, Bill suggested ingesting as many calories as possible as a finishing strategy. Joe's $20 worth of Shot Bloks equaled calories, so I grabbed them like a madman.

I also ate the best Cup Noodles in the history of the planet (prepared by Bill), changed into clean shorts and jersey, and re-lubricated my Southern parts for the Northbound push. Doug and I said goodbye to our riding partner thus far, Joe, and off we went.

Doug in the morning.

The great and surprising part was that the wind wasn't blowing yet. Doug and I fairly scooted Northward for a while. And then it got really hot, and the wind truly lived up to its reputation. Dammit. Doug and I thought we had beat it.

The Salinas Valley is agriculture. Fields, and more fields. Beautiful, but super windy when it's windy.

And now, the moment of truth. Doug and I tried drafting off one another, but we ended up going too fast and burned out quickly. We never seemed to make a dent in the remaining kilometers to go; we just grew hotter and more tired and more disspirited.

Struggling, we happened upon two riders, Bob and Steve, sitting under the shade of a tree. They hailed us and asked if we wanted to form up into a group. Even in that shade, it was just plain hot. Eventually, we got up and tried that pacelining. Then two more randos fell in, and we had a train. But try as Bob might, and he was very skilled and generous in trying to keep the tempo down to match Doug's and my abilities at that moment, it just burned us out. Thanks, Bob, for all your generosity of spirit trying to keep us hanging in there!

Bob recognized what I didn't--that Doug needed to cool down, just physically cool down--and he recommended going up to a winery building seeking out a hose. At this point Doug didn't seem to hear much about cooling down, but talked more of quitting and calling his wife to pick him up. Our little peleton started to ride away without Doug, and I balked. Should I hang with Doug, hunt down a hose (which frankly seemed like more work than it was worth--a sure indication of my own heat struggle) or grab onto the biker train that was pulling away.

Doug, at this point all I can say is I'm sorry I didn't stay with you. The trigger for me was your saying you were calling your wife. Given my experience in my previous 600k attempt, I felt that meant only one thing: that you were done. So I got on my bike and jumped on that rando train through the wind. I'm sorry I didn't hang a little longer to check in with you in a bit more civilized fashion. I felt like if I didn't keep going I'd poop out, but I should have stopped, taken stock with you, and then figured out the right next steps.

Well, looks can indeed by deceiving. Not only did Doug rally and cruise past me as I was shoving ice cream down my throat at a gas station down the road, but Doug finished well ahead of me. And those Zombie-like randos at the controle also all made it in, I believe. In Doug's case, he found a sprinkler, cooled down and rode like a man possessed, near as I can tell. And like me, this was Doug's first 600k. Congrats to you, Doug!

Back on the rando train, I quickly found I just couldn't hang on despite their trying to keep it moderate for me. So I bailed. But I also brought in my secret weapon, the very one I was saving for just such a windy circumstance. I put on headphones and turned on Dartre's iPod and listened to the rando playlist that my stepson, the Singing Cyclist, put together for me. Whether it was Lucinda Williams drawling "Everything is Wrong" or Joss Stone grabbing the blues I was transported. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I was determined this time that no matter what, I was not going to quit until it was physically impossible for any rider, not just me, to make it in on time. I would suffer the wind, I would drive into it, I would crawl if I had to, but I was not quitting, and the music somehow made that possible.

And so I pushed forward. Pretty soon I came upon a couple of other paceline refugees, but I didn't really care at that point if I rode with them or not. I wiped away my tears so they wouldn't see them and just pushed. They rode along behind, and together we rolled into the penultimate controle and the end of the Northwesterly howling wind, with just 40 miles of uncertain conditions left to go.

After this controle (this is the controle, both inbound and outbound, where I discovered hard boiled eggs, string cheese, yogurt and apples as convenience store alternative energy "real food") we three--Marti, yet another rando named Steve and I--formed a new posse and I realized as the wind finally diminished that finishing was a very real possibility. In fact, we even had tailwinds as we skirted around Monterrey Bay, as Bill said we might. It was also Marti's first 600k though he seemed strong as an ox riding home. Congrats to you, Marti!

When we got to the finish at Bill and Lois' house, I was elated. I had made it, and I knew it was because a great many folks helped me through. I simply could not have done it without each and every one. The ride was remarkably well organized with SAG support almost the entire time. Thank you to Bill and Lois and all the encouraging volunteers, and all the riders who helped in a variety of ways! I am indebted to each and all.

Steve's wild "perpetual motion cycle". He didn't have this hooked up for the brevet, but he stores the energy from a descent to assist him in the following climb with this wheel-within-a-wheel device. He pledged to send me a description, and when he does it gets its own post.

Marti, my other finish companion, rode in on a bamboo Calfee.

I also learned that 14 of the 35 starters didn't finish so we lost 40%. I got a great congratulatory note from a veteran of that route who though he finished this one remarked how challenging the weather was this time. To all who didn't finish, I can honestly say I now know something about what that feels like. Every experience is different, but I certainly get how low it can feel. Thanks for being out there. As you well know, there are plenty of new opportunities down the road.

Here I am on the second morning captured by one of our dedicated SAG drivers.

So what did I learn?

Here's a few lessons from this 600k newbie:

  • Getting mad can work.

  • Eating is crucial, and the growly stomach that is overwrought due to heat is different from the hungry growly stomach.

  • I can do 600k without sleep if I must.

  • There are a few "real food" alternatives at convenience stores.

  • Don't just keep adding powdered Perpetuem to a slush of old Perpetuem; after a day or so you are creating a sour stew. Start over with clean water and new powder.

  • Navigating at night is tricky; be patient, and check your assumptions. Then check them again.

  • Pay attention to the pre-ride report: wind probably means wind.

  • Don't linger at controles. Thought I'd learned this one, but I do better, then slip again.

  • Listen to your body. Trust it; trust yourself. I felt a back pain coming on hard, adjusted my saddle and fixed it!

  • Starting a brevet with less than optimum health/sleep can be OK if I'm strong in a long-term way.

  • It's so much a mental, spiritual endeavor once the physical capacity is there.

  • When to hang with others, when to part ways is still a tricky call. Panic probably indicates it's time to take stock. Each case is different, but respect for others, respect for self are keys.

  • Once I've done any distance, it no longer feels impossible. There must be a lesson embedded there for the distances as yet untried.

  • Music, as always, is transformative.

  • Huck and Tom were right. One couldn't have better role models.

I did it!!! My first 600k and first Super Randonneur. I am one happy randonneur. Now, which way to the Beach?

Oops, I forgot. As I was taking my bike bag and luggage out of our truck after Dartre picked me up at the Seattle airport, guess who wheels by our house? Our neighbor, Dylan, had just finished his Permanent, and I congratulated him as he congratulated me. Dylan did the SIR 600k much earlier. With Dartre and Dylan, we may have the highest per capita randonneurs per block in the country!

Dylan on his 200k finish as we arrived home.

Keep it going, no matter what,



  1. Congratulations! A year or so ago, I drove down from Oregon to do the SCR "Endless Headwind 600k". It is not an easy ride, not that any 600k is ever easy. Thanks for the ride report, it brought back some good memories.

  2. Congratulations! I'm happy for you in completing the 600k and making possible to do PBP next year. Hopefully I'll be able to accomplish what you have in a year or two. Truly inspirational!

  3. So this means you're qualified for the PBP?!!

    Great report.
    I'm so proud of you.
    [Jeff is scanning those slides and will email them to you.]

  4. what a great read. I really liked what you learned. There is something to be said for sticking with someone but...its okay to ride away. You haven't left them without resources or their own skills. Bonking is my own issue not someone elses. Your comments on the mental aspects are well received.
    J Vincent

  5. Such a great story! Thanks, Steve.