Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Day 1: 99.5 miles, 4,700 ft of climbing, half a lung

Where do I begin? Perhaps where I left off.

It started sprinkling as we left Starbucks Saturday night. We walked out to the corner and flagged a shuttle bus - such great service!

It sprinkled off and on as we prepared for bed, and at exactly the moment I pulled the ten zipper closed it started to shower. After organizing riding cloths and repacking the duffel, we settled into our sleeping bags. Something was not right. Theo the Sherpa had topped off our air mattresses just a little while ago and mine was way too soft. But it was pouring rain out there.

I hoped that it was just soft and not leaking, but I knew from experience that I was most likely in for a long, uncomfortable night. Sherpa services buy the cheap Coleman mattresses which have a high-percentage defective rate. I've bought a few myself that leaked right out of the box. So, on the first night of an event, a certain percentage of those new mattresses are going to leak (I talked to two other neighbors yesterday who slept on the ground Saturday night). This is the second time I've drawn that card. Maybe I should play Lotto.

So there I was, the night before the big ride, sleeping on the ground. And to make matters worse, I could feel that cold moving into my chest. It was a long night. I think I selpt an hour.

It starts getting light here before 5 AM. We were up and moving by 5:30. And it was COLD!! This is one of the tough things about mountain tour riding. It can be in the 30s or 40s when you start out in the morning, but then the forcast was for it to be around 90. On a 100 mile day, waiting til the sun is warm isn't really an option.

Since the ride started with a long climb, I didn't bother with leg warmers, I put on arm warmers, vest and a jacket. (We immediatly got complements on our BOBbies outfits!) By the time we were ready to start riding, the sun was up over the mountain and it was warm. I took the jacket and long-finger gloves off.

The starting climb was beautiful! Perfect grade, breathtaking scenery. Speaking of breath, mine was already taken. My lungs were heavy and I had to keep my heartrate low in order to get enough air to keep moving. I was actually kind of amazed that at 9,000 feet I was able to climb in such a compromised state.

After that climb came a quick descent, followed by 30 miles of down-hill false flats with a few short, easy climbs. We breezed along at 22-24 mph. At the 47 mile lunch stop, I was feeling pretty good, except for my lungs which hurt like hell and threatened to shut down at the least exertion. A few times I had accelerated and paid for it with several minutes of painful weezing and coughing afterward.

If you look at the profile, you can see that the easy part of the ride was over after the lunch stop. The false flats tipped upward and were interrupted by climbs - not steep grades, but the exertion was constant for 16 miles to the next rest stop. And the wind was picking up and gusting hard. Most of the time it was a crosswind, but many times the road turned into it. Climbing into the gusting wind was almost more than I could handle.

I faltered a lot. I had to stop and rest frequently. My lungs were getting tighter and tighter and the dry air was burning my trachea and bronchi. It was scorching hot and the landscape was dry and desolate. There was no shade anywhere. We were roasting. In the frigid morning air, we had forgotten to apply or pack sunscreen.

Aid Station 4 seemed to get farther and farther away as I suffered. I felt like I would have to SAG. I had trained so hard for this epic ride, I didn't want to quit. But the climb up Rabbit Ears Pass after the aid station would be much steeper and I was struggling to breathe on 3-4 % grades.

My legs, however, felt great.

At the stop, we talked over the options. I didn't think I could make the climb. I was afraid that I might be doing more damage to myself. I decided I would SAG.

But I couldn't do it. I could not get in a van. I could not miss the climb, and I could definitely not miss the descent!

So we set off up the climb, slowly. I was able to hold just under 5 mph and breathe. My legs were fine. I felt like I hadn't really used them. I set myself up in the 28 ring and shifted between the 27 and 29 cogs. I was grateful for the gearing options!

I didn't look at the clock, but with the slow speed and frequent stops for me to catch my breath, it probably took us close to 2 hours to make that 5 mile climb. Despite my condition, we were still able to pass a lot of people. Several other riders were struggling - with heat or altitude. It also looked like a lot of people were taking the SAG wagon. I saw countless SAG vehicles loaded with bikes and people. I figured that was always an option if I could go no further on this climb, but I had to try.

My computer seemed to be lagging a little behind the route mileage, so when we came around the final corner and saw a gathering of cyclists and SAG vehicles, I thought it might be an intermediate water stop. But as we pulled up I saw the Continental Divide sign and knew we'd made it!

Unfortunately, the reward for this climb is not quickly forthcoming. The road rolls up and down along the top of the divide for 5 miles. The wind was very strong up there and, as luck would have it, right in our faces. The scenery up there is stunning. Lush green forests and meadows, with little patches of snow and occasional glimpses of the far horizon - long valleys and snow-topped mountain ranges. If I hadn't felt like shit, I would have really appreciated it. But as it was, it was the longest, most frustrating 5 miles of my life! The wind was relentless, infuriating, shoving and taunting us. I wanted to shake my fist at it. I wanted to scream, but my voice was gone and I had no breath to spare. I wanted to throw my bike in a ditch and sit in the grass and cry. I just wanted my hard-earned descent, dammit! Would this ever end?

Finally, at last, thank God, I could see the yellow warning sign in the distance. My favorite sign - warning trucks to use a low gear - steep grades for the next 7 miles. We stopped and waited for some riders to get a head start, when there was a long enough break, Lisa sent me on to my reward. And oh was it worth every burning breath I had suffered all day. Seven miles of uninterrupted, no-brakes bombing. I passed everyone I came upon. No one passed me. When the grade wasn't steep enough to maintain speed, I pedaled.

The scenery was stunning. I could see for miles across a valley of rolling green pastures to a ridge of snow-topped rocky mountains. I'd love to share it with you, but there was no way I was going to interrupt my skydive to take a photo. Sorry :-)

Lisa and I regrouped at the bottom for the ride into town. It was all down hill from there.

I didn't check the time, but I think it was close 6 PM when we arrived at the High School. We had started out a little after 7 AM.

I was worried about my lungs, so we walked up to the medic van. there were several guys in there with road rash. One of the guys who I'd seen suffering on the climb was laying down and they were preparing to take him to the hospital - I think, for fluids. The staff was really wonderful - so friendly and caring. Kelly, an emergency nurse, talked to me about my symptoms. She didn't seem to have any options. She said an antihistomine would make my throat feel even more dry. But she didn't seem concerned with me continuing to ride since I wasn't feeling altitude symptoms. She checked my lungs and said they sounded fine. The bronchial distress was irritation from breathing hot dry air. Humid air would be the only thing to help that, and there's no place to get that around here. Then she checked my oxygen saturation. It was 98%. She said, for someone from sea level, 91 or 92% would be considered very good.

Was it the anti-oxydent vitamines I've been taking during my training, the altitude concoction we purchased, or the many hours of endurance training? Probably the combination. But I'm certain that is why I was able to make it through this ride at altitude in my condition.

When I was awake and miserable in the middle of the night, I was feeling sorry for myself that I had trained so hard for this event and now felt it was threatened by a #@%&ng cold. The purpose of my training was to be able to enjoy each day, not be wiped out at the end, or miserable the next. It turns out my training my have just saved my ride.