You have to be there. Really.
Here’s the thing about Death Valley. Photographs don’t do it justice. Video doesn’t do it justice. There is no photograph that I’ve taken or seen that conveys the feel of the place, which is what made the valley so special when I first encountered it and which made me so eager to return. Sure, the images look spectacular, but you don’t have to be in the valley very long to realize that your eyes constantly betray you, and it is really through feel that the valley conveys its substance and scale. It feels huge. It feels old. It feels weathered and trampled by human commerce and still somehow untouched.
You look around and you think “I’m in a valley” and your mental frame of reference slots in a convenient image of some other ordinary valley you’ve encountered. What you can’t quite grasp is that the valley is the size of the entire state of Delaware, and that the hills framing the valley are some really big ass mountains. People get lost in this landscape, and lost quickly. If we’re thinking historically, they sometimes get lost permanently.
I lost count of the number of times when we were biking through the valley, on a portion of long, straight road where you could see forever, and I would glance up ahead at a scene framed by mountains that seemed only an outstretched arm away. With a shock I would then see in the foreground, a tiny black wire strung with slowly shuttling beads, that I realized was the road yet to be traveled, and those tiny beads, moving like the world’s most exhausted ants, were my fellow cyclists, miles ahead.
Not all of us were raised by monkeys
I slept reasonably well, all things considered, and was up bright and early to finish the final packing and have a leisurely oatmeal and coffee breakfast. Bob and I rendezvoused with Dana and Tim and made our way to the start line at the entrance to the ranch. By 6am it was light enough to see well and we took in the spectacle of nearly three hundred riders getting themselves ready for the day ahead. There was every conceivable type of bike: fixies, folders, recumbents, the latest wispy carbon wonders, and every kind of metal. It was nippy, but we knew that things would warm up quickly, so the usual array of garish team colors was supplemented by an array of tights, arm warmers, leg warmers, beanies, etc. Although we’d been instructed by the ride organizers to come prepared and to make sure that we were carrying extra water and materials to deal with most emergencies, it was pretty apparent that many people were traveling pretty light. Which could work out (the day looked like it would cooperate), but then again, we were in the desert, and in the mountains and I’d had some experience with how quickly the conditions can go tits up in those places, so I was pretty happy carrying the extra gear.
We were released in waves, and while I was almost taken out by Dana after a whole 2 metres of riding, we got through the first part of the ride without any major mishaps. Riders organized into packs or small groups, ones and twos, and soon we were heading south along the valley. The road rose and fell slightly but was generally flat, and we settled into a pace that was comfortably in the 17-18mph range. Riding hard up against the wall of mountains that constituted the eastern wall of the valley, we were in continuous shadow, but looking to our right we saw the sun gradually spreading down the opposite side of the valley, washing everything in color. The air was cool, with little perceptible wind; the biking conditions were as magical as you are ever likely to get. We rode well as a group, rotating the lead between the four of us at regular intervals, and not worrying about anyone else that latched on to our train, as they did from time to time.
I loved almost every single aspect of this ride: the low-key organization, the incredibly cheerful volunteers, the scenery, the route, the challenge of it all. . . The only vaguely disappointing thing was the other riders. There were some great people there, don’t get me wrong. There was this one massive team called Team Adobo that seemed to make up half the field at times. A predominantly Filipino-American cycling club, they were invariably friendly and enthusiastic; their team included people of all abilities and from the conversations I overheard at the rest stops even their faster riders were checking in on how some of the slower ones were doing. But in general people just didn’t seem that, well, friendly. We were riding exclusively with the 150 and 200 milers, since the century people started after us. So maybe it was just that people were nervous and very focused on the task ahead of them. But in general it was difficult to strike up a conversation with anyone. No one seemed that inclined to talk.
Moreover, there were a few outright arseholes, something that I haven’t really seen in large endurance rides before. Arsehole number 1 made his appearance before we even reached Badwater. I only heard snatches of this conversation because I was pulling at the time, followed by Bob, Dana, and Tim, in that order. But the others filled me in later.
Tim: Beautiful scenery
Arsehole 1: Yeah, I guess. Hey, is that your girlfriend?
Tim: No, she’s just a friend and we ride together.
Arsehole 1: Then you should check out that scenery!
Dana: I’m right here you know, I can hear you.
Arsehole 1: Hey, I’m over 60 so I can say what I like.
There followed some more conversation to the effect that this approach might not be the best way to win friends and influence people in general, let alone women. After which Arsehole 1 replied, “Hey, we have a couple of girls on our team. I don’t know their names so I just call them sweet cheeks and honey buns. Which do you want to be called?”
This is where esprit d’escalier all too often makes its appearance. When Dana and Tim were filling me in on this later, it occurred to me that Dana should have said something like “Iron Maiden” or, “You can call me whatever you like as long as I can call you Limp Dick.”
Honestly, I’m amazed and appalled how often it appears that members of my own gender seem to have been raised by monkeys. It is all they can do to stop jerking themselves off in public in order to get a word out.
Arsehole Number 2 seemed to be riding with Arsehole Number 1 and while not actually offensive, spent much of his time hanging out in the opposite lane, weaving back and forth across the road etc. If you’ve spent any time at all in the park you would have seen how fast people drive there, and have also noticed how quickly cars can appear out of nowhere. A sane person would know how incredibly dangerous this behavior was. But then again, if I’d been riding with Arsehole 1 I’d probably have wanted to kill myself as quickly as possible as well.
Worse still, it seemed as if these two guys were riding roughly at our own pace and we’d be stuck with them gibbering and massaging their nuts for the rest of the day.
We pulled over at Badwater briefly and maybe that allowed them to go ahead, because we were mercifully free of their company after that. Badwater is quite a surreal experience in many ways. It is just a roadside pull-off, but it is right up against an almost sheer wall of rock; you glance up, and way, way, above you is a tiny sign where if you squint you can just make out the words “Sea Level.” It is a strange thing to spend a good proportion of your day two hundred feet below sea level. Rationally, of course, it doesn’t signify at all. You are a long way inland, surrounded by mountains. But there’s something about the role the sea plays in our collective unconscious (and maybe in the distant biology of evolutionary memory); in some part of my brain I was dimly conscious that there was this huge mass of water out there somewhere, trembling at the edge of my awareness, almost as if it were backed up on the other side of the mountains, ready and waiting to slosh over the top and bury us all. Maybe its not evolutionary recall as much as too many childhood Sunday afternoons spent watching Hollywood biblical epics.
The Sun Also Rises. Ditto the Wind. And for good measure, so does the Terrain
Pulling out of Badwater, several collective pounds of liquid lighter, we turned toward the valley briefly and finally made our way out of the shadow and into the sun. To our right stretched the unrelieved whiteness of the salt flats; they looked so much like snow (especially to this jaded soul sick of a “no-show-snow” winter in DC. On our left, we rounded a series of what in NZ we would call shingle fans, long promontories of debris washed down from the nearby mountains.
This whole first stretch of about 40 miles was basically flat and was pure cycling joy (apart from periodic appearances by the aforementioned monkey men): gently rolling, a quick tempo (an unbelievably quick tempo) and like most moments of pure joy it was too good to last.
The terrain we were cycling on didn’t change, but then suddenly, without warning, we were into the wind. I’m guessing that we must have ridden out of the wind shadow of the mountains in some sense, but I couldn’t see it. That, I remembered later, is one of the things I needed to remember that I had forgotten about the desert: the wind is unpredictable. It hides from you in the nooks and crannies of the canyons and then leaps out at you when you least expect it and takes a giant crap on you. We were doing almost 20mph and then suddenly we were doing twelve. This was shades of what the riders experienced two years ago when howling winds across the whole route led most riders to shorten their distance and many to abandon. And, to make matters more fun, we had begun to climb.
Fortunately, another rest-stop appeared and we stopped to gather ourselves and to re-stock, and to wait in line for the portaloos so that we could sit inside and listen to the wind howling through the cracks in the plastic. Then it was back on the road. Fortunately, not long after the rest stop the road hung a sharp left and we began the climb up to Jubilee Pass; the wind was now from the side, but then as we got further into the mountains it dropped altogether.
Grinding and Gliding
At the risk of sounding repetitive, and of coming across as some wild-eyed prophet button-holing people on the street, the valley is really like nothing else, and the climbing is no exception. It isn’t at all like the climbing we do around the immediate DC area, for example. These range from bumps to brutally steep but short. Even when climbing Skyline drive from Front Royal, for example, you are rarely climbing in an unrelieved fashion for more than an hour, tops. The climbs up to Jubilee and then Salsbury Pass are gradual (somewhere around 4-6% grade, but they go on forever. I was climbing at a solid 6-7 mph for the better part of three solid hours. This may be more what it is like climbing in the Rockies, and while I’ve never done that I remember driving that area, and the one difference here is that the road is almost perfectly straight. Climbing and descending, you can see forever.
For the first part we climbed solidly as a team, riding within ourselves, but then Dana and Bob gradually pulled away, followed by Tim. We all regrouped at the water stop at the bottom of the brief descent on the other side of Jubilee.
Then it was more of the same up to Salsbury, at a not inconsiderable 3300 feet. When doing this kind of climbing you really have two mental strategies available to you. There is the usual one of focusing on the road in front of you. Or you can focus on the stunning view. . .but without trying to look at the road. It is almost like you have to create a little blind spot in your vision, because you can see virtually all the road, all the time, and it stretches forever, with tiny little blobs of climbing cyclists appearing to be impossibly far away.
Eventually Tim dropped back and kept me company for the last part of the climb to the pass, a steady flow of conversation that was designed simply to keep my mind off things. As a result I wasn’t terribly interactive, but it worked.
The payoff, of course, is that there are two sides to a pass, and the road is basically the same type on each side. So what went up comes down. . .fast.
Not super-fast, although you could certainly achieve some pretty remarkable velocities I’d imagine if you really cranked the pedals. But after the climb and the brief pause at the top, it felt as if we were dropping off the side of the world. Before we’d gone a couple of hundred metres I saw the sign for a steep downhill grade with “5 miles” underneath it. My heart soared. If possible, the view was even more spectacular because there was nothing between you and the distant horizon. I settled myself into a comfortable aero position and then enjoyed the next 15-20 minutes of coasting at pretty much a steady 36-37 mph. Again, we don’t get this kind of downhill where I’m from either! Of course, there was that rather discouraging sight of cyclists already climbing back up towards us, but I tried to put that out of mind and enjoy the pure ballet of descending, trading places with my team-mates depending on our body position and how much wind we were catching, looking down at my speed to see I was approaching 40. . .at precisely the moment when a tandem blasted past me going at least 10mph faster (with Tim shamelessly tailgating it I might add!). . .it was pure magic.
[Disclaimer: I'm still pretty new to this video thing; somewhere along the line I hit a bump and the camera dropped down a notch, so this unfortunately shows more of the road than I would have liked. But it does convey the speed and the scenery]
The turn around was in Shoshone where we paused to stock up on liquds, get rid of other liquids and grab some of the many varieties of solid food (including some amazing home made chocolate bars). Dana was a little nauseous at this point, feeling as if she might have gone too hard on the climb; as a result she hadn’t really enjoyed the descent as much of the rest of us. But she seemed to regroup and we hit the road.
This, unfortunately, meant climbing back up the way we’d come.
By this point I was really beginning to feel that while the distance training for our rides was adequate, the lack of climbing prep was beginning to tell. The others gradually pulled away and on the climb back up Salsbury I stopped a couple of times by the side of the road just to get my HR back down and my head back in the game. I certainly wasn’t the only one; I passed one cyclist slumped completely over his handlebars, looking utterly beat. The light felt different, the air felt different; the day was unmistakably providing signs that it was thinking about calling it a day. The last part of Salsbury was torture; I kept looking for the downhill grade sign I’d seen before, knowing that there would only be a short distance to the top, but it never seemed to come. And then when I did see it, the grade kicked up sharply. But I powered through it and met my team at the top.
Then, however, it was more long downhill. The RS really shone on the downhill, mainly because of the compliant rear-end. I didn’t realize until talking with Bob and Tim later that they found the descents bone-rattling, but the RS simply glided over the chip seal and occasional broken section. The short climb back up to Jubilee barely seemed to rate, and then we were dropping again, steeply, playing catch-as-catch can with one another and a couple of other cyclists. The most amazing part was when we rounded a curve and we could see clear across to the other side of the valley but–in an optical illusion I remembered from the last time I’d visited–the other side of the valley was a broad, steeply raked fan that made it feel as if you were tipping face forwards, not just coasting but falling: a short-sharp, intake of breath like when you fall in dreams and try to pull your body to a halt before you hit.
But we didn’t wake, the descent continued, and we swept northward, dropping down below sea level and coasting all the way into the rest stop that had saved us in the morning (now many hours ago) when the wind had begun to kick up.
Apologies to Eugene O’Neill
But there is really no other title for this section than “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
This was the section of the ride that almost finished me. We were well over 100 miles by this point and we had hours of climbing in our legs and the tension of miles of high-speed descending in our arms and shoulders. We knew that when we hit the next rest stop at Badwater we would have less than 20 miles left to ride. But Badwater never seemed to arrive. We knew that leaving Badwater in the morning we’d rounded a large shingle fan and so we were looking for that. But it seemed as if there were many more of these curves than we had been aware of on the way out. Time and again we rounded a corner expecting to see the rest stop nestled up against the sheer rock wall, only to see the road bending back out into the valley once again. The sky was cloudy, and the setting sun was turning everything–rocks, sand, salt–into varying shades of orange. It was beautiful, but I was barely taking it in. My legs were tired, my arse hurt, my brain was tired and it hurt; it was all I could do to keep my concentration to avoid running into the person ahead of me. We rotated the lead but when it came to my turn I could only pull for a very short time before I was exhausted.
After a while, I announced that I thought I was going to be sick and that I was pulling over. Bob very generously said that he was grateful that someone had called a halt because he too was flagging, something I didn’t believe for a second, but Bob has this lovely way of making you feel better about yourself when you are not doing that great. The Infinit mix I’d been drinking all day was pretty high in a endurolytes, but I figured a couple of salt sticks couldn’t hurt. And maybe it was that, or maybe it was getting a chance to look around at the scenery, to feel the quiet underneath the wind that had dropped to a whisper, or maybe it was being off the bike just long enough. But it was enough to get me back on the bike, and soon we were heading into Badwater.
At Badwater they had “lunch” (at almost 5:30 in the afternoon): Subway sandwiches that someone had lugged all the way out there. I didn’t at all feel like eating anything, much less a sandwich from which I could see the mayonnaise dripping. I took one out of politeness more than anything and scarfed the lot in under 5 minutes. (The only other time this has happened to me was when I finished the Parks Half Marathon, and upon finishing someone handed me a couple of pieces of pizza which was the last thing I felt like; before I knew it they were gone). Even better, they had Coke; if there had been one can left and an old lady with a walker was reaching for it I wouldn’t have hesitated to take her out. While we were eating I hooked up my Forerunner to a spare battery pack that I’d bought because I was already getting increasingly insistent low battery warnings. The battery pack was excess weight (I carried a lot of excess compared with other people) but I was damned if I was going to end up with an incomplete recording of the ride. We were all tired, a little subdued, throwing ourselves down on the edge of the curb to eat. Only Dana still seemed to be feeling feisty.
Getting back on the bike was almost the hardest thing. Getting the bike moving again was the hardest thing.
“Oh my god, my arse has never, ever been this sore,” I announced. I paused to think. ”Except for that time in prison.” That almost caused everyone to fall off their bikes again, but it at least got us rolling down the road.
As the light slowly faded we encountered another strange cyclist. This guy rode up alongside us and Bob made some pleasant remark. I don’t remember what; he might have been inviting the guy to join us or telling him that he looked strong. But the guy looked over at the four of us and said “I don’t draft.” There was definitely a Tone. Then you sir, I thought, are a fucking moron. If you want to prove the size of your balls by riding all that distance by yourself go right ahead. He surged ahead of us and dangled off the front before the inevitable math of four people working together overcame that of one grumpy fuck biking by himself. Finally he pulled over rather pointedly to let us pass.
I was really starting to despair that long distance cycling attracted only socially-challenged losers that no one else would ride with.
[By the way, I learned later that at either the top of Jubilee or Salsbury Dana and Bob had encountered our misogynist friend from the morning. Dana had been trying to take a picture of the summit sign but the guy insisted on standing in the picture saying, "You want me in it, right?" Finally Dana, who is one of the nicest people on the face of the planet, and who hadn't even chewed the guy out when he was being such a shit earlier in the day, snapped: "No, I don't. Get out of the fucking way."]
Gradually it got darker and then finally, very abruptly it seemed, the light disappeared altogether. Front and rear lights aglow, we were on autopilot by this time. I had a variable wattage front light which meant that I could dial it down a tad when I was at the rear and then punch it up when I hit the front. I’m regretting that I wasn’t a little more with it during this period, but I did get occasional glimpses of what some of the 200 riders were describing over breakfast the next day, the beauty of biking on a desert road with no sound and no distractions and almost no other light of any kind anywhere.
I felt we were getting close so I found the a reserve of energy that I didn’t know I had and hit the front, upping the pace a tad as we approached the final turn leading back to the ranch.
Except it wasn’t the final turn, and having completely shot my wad I drifted off the back, watching the tail lights of Tim and Dana disappear into the distance. When we did finally reach the intersection I noticed Bob had pulled off to the side. His front light had abruptly died. Fortunately, in my excess baggage I was carrying a spare, and we managed to rig it to Bob’s handlebars to avoid the DQ from the race organizers for riding without a light. That got us the last mile home.
My official event time was 11 hours and 48 minutes. Funnily enough, I ended up with a faster time than my friends because even though they arrived a head of me, we were all dazed and confused and I was simply the first person to figure out where the sign-in point was. Of that time, about 9:45 was riding, with approximately 8000 feet of climbing (the ride organizers claimed 9000).
We made our weary way back to our rooms; Bob and I in fact didn’t bother getting off our bikes but just rode straight along the corridor to our room.
Tales Around the Campfire
We were tired, sure, but it is amazing how being absolutely ravenously hungry can actually give you renewed energy. We headed down to the bar (or, I guess, maybe saloon, in this part of the country?), ordered up some large, strong and cold ones, and sat outside for a while, around the gas firepits, cheering and applauding the 200 mile riders that were slowly dribbling in. Talk inevitably turned to whether or not this was harder than an Ironman (it wasn’t that much shorter of a day, for starters) and while the Ironman would edge this out, on balance, it was still an incredibly hard day.
I couldn’t be more proud of, and grateful for, the people I rode with. Bob, Tim, Dana and I rode well together, supported one another, and were always there at the various points in the day when one of us was having mental, physical or (with Bob) equipment issues. It was the culmination of a long training road for all of us, and while doing long rides in a DC winter was a grim business, I wouldn’t have traded places with the few people I overheard during the day who were talking about how they had trained for the ride largely on a trainer in their basements. It was also a not inconsiderable logistical exercise/nightmare for us to even get ourselves all the way out here with our bikes.
But that was the point. When I had first suggested this thing it had seemed like the hard thing. The almost impossible thing. But doing the hard thing teaches you stuff about the people you are with and about yourself.
Even if some of those lessons may be a little troubling. We were probably on our third excessively large brew and at the tail end of 15oo calories or so worth of food when Dana looked at us all and said: “You know, today was hard and I’m in no mood to get on the bike any time soon but really, how much harder can 50 extra miles be?”