Thursday, August 2, 2007


2:00 on Friday afternoons is the unofficial start time for the “he who dies with the most toys, wins” contest. Heading south on Hwy 99, my cruise control kicks in and I see some serious contestants - kayaks on roof racks, mountain bikes on trunk racks, canoes, and ski and fishing boats. Undoubtedly there are coolers full of beer, and salsa and chips as well-earned rewards for successful weekend performance. I won’t place very high in the “toys” contest this week. Heck, I don’t even need a rack to support my habit this weekend – just a pair of running shoes, shorts, and a case of GU (energy packets), all which fit comfortably in the passenger seat of my Durango.

My partner in adventure (and true renaissance man), Mark, turned 50 this year. That’s a big number. It’s divisible by 5, and 10, and 25. It’s halfway to 100. We have currency in this exact denomination – both coins and paper. Heck, even the Romans had a separate numeral for 50. It’s a big number, and it requires a big celebration. Mark is not the type to drink 50 beers, or eat 50 of much of anything, the kinds of things reserved for males in recognizing a special anniversary. No, as I said, Mark is a renaissance man, so he has given this considerable thought. So it comes as no surprise to me when he invites me to run 50 miles to welcome this impressive benchmark. It was a bit of a surprise how easily I said “yes”. I assume if Mark can do it, well, I’m his outdoor adventure partner; I can do it. Right?

Almost as hard as training for a 50-mile run was picking a day to do it. Between swim meets, and kids birthdays, and family commitments, a lot of summer weekends get booked. At first what sounded like a conflict quickly became a good idea for me – July 28, just two weeks after the Death Ride. It may not be a simple transition, from cycling to running, but my legs and lungs will be in shape, so “OK”. It’s inked in my calendar. The look on Pam’s face is priceless – it says, “Is that a good idea? Are you kidding? 50, that’s a big number” – but, like usual, the words that pass her lips are “OK, that sounds great, honey”. All the encouragement I need.

So, a week before the Death ride (see previous blog), I’m really done training for that event, so it’s “time to start running”. I’ve done the occasional 6-miler up to now, so I’m ready to step it up. I hear it's 15 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail from Sugar Bowl to Squaw Valley. The girls drop me off at Sugar Bowl and we agree to meet 3 ½ hours later at the Starbucks at Squaw. Pam wants to know what the cutoff time is – when she should call Search and Rescue. I assure her I get cell reception at the top of the pass and not to worry. “5 hours”, I say.

I don’t consider myself a runner, so much, as a guy who can use his legs to keep moving forward for hours. I’m not fast. At 6’3” and 200 lbs, I don’t look like a runner (except my calves which look exactly like a 130lb marathoner’s). At some organized races I’ve entered I was able to sign up for the “Clydesdale” category; that is, for guys over 190lbs. In fact, I’ve placed 3rd in my category on several occasions, owed less to my speed and more to the fact there are usually only 3 “Clydesdales”. But the bagels are free and the people are nice.

Arriving in Tuolumne Meadows later that Friday evening, Mark and I dine. We feast actually, at the best restaurant on the east side of the Sierra’s. It’s Matt’s “Whoa Nellie Deli” at the Mobil Station (yes, a gas station) in Lee Vining. Really. They host weddings there. There is a semi-permanent trapeze/high-wire contraption there for Cirque du Soliel wannabees. If you take nothing else from this blog, take my restaurant advice and get gas, Yosemite souvenirs, and some of the best damned, non-pretentious-but-served-in-an-attractive-manner food you’ll ever have. They serve wine. You eat outdoors on a picnic table on the grass, with 100 other diners and live music. The fish tacos are to die for; so on this eve of our optimistic effort to be young ultra-marathoners, we feast.

We also revise our plans, which originally included 3 of us on a very remote, high alpine trail. Dan backed out, and for the safety of just 2 runners now, we revise our plan to a loop trail beginning and ending in Tuolumne Meadows. It’s only 38 miles now (isn’t this a great “trick” to get excited about running 38 miles – “at least it’s not 50”). It begins, however at 9’500 feet elevation, crosses two passes over 11,000 feet, and one pass at 12,200 ft. We’ll climb a total of 6,000 feet, and descend 7,000 on this run, and all but the last 4 miles are above 9’500 ft. It’s no longer 50 miles, but Mark is comforted when I do the math in my head to keep it related to the number 50, and tell him it’s more than 50k, in fact it’s 60k.

After organizing GU, ibuprofen, and water bottles into my fanny pack, it’s time for early bed. We’ll get up at 3:30 and be running at 4:00. In the light of a full moon I fold down the back seats of the Durango parked discreetly off the road near Tioga Pass, and crawl in for a few hours sleep. A key selling feature of the Durango was that the rear cargo space is 6’3” in length, and this night, it serves me well.

Those early morning alarms are annoying, and usually earn a couple slaps of the “snooze” button. But I wake right up, excited by the still of the morning and the prospect of participating in the sunrise. Mark is up and we shuttle the cars to the start and finish spots. It’s cool, but we’re comfortable in shorts with light, long sleeve shirts. We start our watches and begin running easily over a well-worn trail in the glow of our headlamps (we own many of these for specific climbing purposes). It’s quiet, and I focus on consistent breathing, a sustainable heart rate, and the next 8 feet.

The black sky slowly lightens and we begin to see outlines of the trees, and the peaks beyond. The trail is mostly flat, with a little uphill. It begins to steepen as the morning sky takes shape. We talk a bit, but mostly it’s still settling in on breathing and heart rate. This feels comfortable, and we enjoy the beautiful scenery that opens up before us. Our first major pass is in the first few miles, noted by the steeper trail. It’s Parker Pass at 11,100 feet. We make our way to the top – to the edge of Yosemite National Park. Yosemite has really nice directional signs, hand-carved out of local trees. We enter Inyo Forest land, where their sign-maker is skilled with sheet metal and a blowtorch. We’re on the right trail, and it is now daylight. It’s incredible to see such a lush, green meadow at this elevation. We’re above tree line, and I’m amused by the steel sign saying “no fires above 10,000 feet”. Not much of a threat up here.

We feel on top of the world, with spectacular views of the high alpine Sierras all around us, recognizing some of the peaks we’ve climbed together - Mt. Conness and North Peak. Well not quite the “top” of the world, as we recognize our next challenge is to the 12,200 Koip Peak pass. Yeah, that’ll be the top. We’re above tree line, surrounded by spectacular granite peaks and several glaciers on the north-facing slopes. This is water at its source, and creeks, and streams, and waterfalls surround us. The practical value for us is our insatiable need to hydrate, which we force ourselves to do often. Giardia is a water-borne microscopic parasite that has infected the waters in California, even up this high. So after filling our water bottles (we each carry 2 on a hip belt), we must treat the water with chemicals and take well-deserved breaks.

12,200 feet is spectacular. The trail up here was all rock with just under one million switchbacks. It goes up a ridge with views of June Lakes, way, way off in the distance. We can see the forest cutouts of the ski resort there. And I am a little lightheaded from the altitude. We can see the pass up ahead, and another “no fires” sign greets us, but we’re welcomed by an impressive view of the next valley below and the happy prospect of a long, gentle downhill. It’s getting warm now, so we change into lighter weight shirts, ingest a couple of GU’s, and continue to sip/drink/gulp water.

We met very few people on the first half of the run, on a fairly unused and remote trail. There was a pack team, that is, campers who come in on horseback. “Light and fast” is not their mode, as made obvious by the smell of bacon and the invitation for a stack of pancakes. “Thank you, but no” I reply. Somewhere about halfway we intersect with the Pacific Crest Trail and begin meeting backpackers who are out for 20-day trips. Some look like the Clampetts (Jed, Granny, etc.) with shoes, water bottles, and women’s foundation garments hanging off of every strap on their over-filled 70 lb packs. Others are very streamlined with the latest in lightweight technology and the ability to “make more with less”. Mark asks them their “base pack weight” (total pack weight minus food and water), as it’s almost it’s own sport to carry less than 15 lbs of supplies for a month-long trip.

And so it goes. We run, and run, and walk, and fill our water bottles, and add iodine tablets, and start running again. It’s beautiful to be so far into the wilderness, and amazing to feel so responsible for ourselves. We’ve stepped up to something very challenging, and we’re enjoying every minute of it. It never got tedious. We always felt on schedule. We appreciated the quiet time of running in silence, listening to our lungs and hearts, and feeling cooled by the evaporation of sweat. We’d sit on the grass, or a rock to refill our water bottles, and we had conversation with other adventurers. We finally hit our last pass at 11,050 feet (I carried an altimeter), and with 11 more miles to go, it was downhill the rest of the way. We were still on schedule, and one of the hikers we ran into at mile 31 said we looked “fresh” for having gone such a distance. We smiled, and while not feeling fresh, we felt lucky knowing we could continue and finish in good style, which we did.

We were out for over 13 hours with 10 ½ hours of running. The only time it “hurt” was the last 5 miles, partly because we were tired, but mostly because it was flat. You see, the ups and the downs provide some variety to your stride. On the flats, like this, it’s just turnover, and that repetition is so much more taxing. The elevation, too, was taking its toll.

The finish was anything but anticlimactic – a cold Gatorade, some whole wheat corn chips from Trader Joe’s and a killer roasted pepper guacamole. Then came the “removal of the shoes” ceremony, and finally, a celebratory feast at, you guessed it, the Mobil Station. By our account, it was a perfect day.

So Happy Birthday, Mark! Congratulations on reaching this benchmark year, and accomplishing your special goal in great style. And thanks, thanks a lot for including me in your celebration. It makes me look toward 60, and 70, and all those other big numbers with great anticipation. That is a great feeling.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Death Ride

To call it a "bicycle ride" sounds so pleasant. It's called the Death Ride for a reason, and "pleasant" doesn't factor into it at all. It's been going on for 25 or more years, designed to be a very hard bike ride for those who like such things. Apparently, I do. And it delivered.

It starts in Markleeville, a tiny mining town on Hwy 89 south of Lake Tahoe. I go through Markleeville on my way to Tuolomne Meadows a few times each year, except in the winter because the 8,350 pass is closed due to snow. It's high elevation. That pass is called Monitor Pass, and it'll factor into this story. Markleeville is where the ride begins, and ends 129 miles later. This ride includes 5 similar high passes, for a total vertical gain of 16,000 feet. That's like going from Sac to Donner Pass, twice, then back up above Auburn. It sounds hard. It is. So those are the stats, 129 miles and 16,000 vertical feet. They're proud of these stats. It's on everything - the shirts, the hats, coffee mugs, the rider numbers. There is also a skull/skeleton logo that appears everywhere too. OK, we get the message.

If you know me well, you know I like this stuff. Hanging out on El Cap for 5 days, going for Half-Dome in a day, and agreeing to run 50 miles with my pal Mark for his 50th birthday, well, these things appeal to me. Probably some latent psychological issues haunting me from my troubled youth. But I'm not savvy on such things so I just go for it and leave the explaining up to Pam's pals. I really don't want to know.

I won't bore you with all the training, well, because it's boring. Pam and Hannah politely kiss me goodbye on Saturday mornings, and I return several hours later, having achieved increasingly longer distances on long, tedious hills. Boring. Suffice it to say I did a lot of repeat laps on Donner Pass Road, and a trip up Tioga Pass Road into Tuolomne Meadows. These are hard rides (still boring), but they are under my belt and helpful in the preparation. I think this is good training - I'm ready . . .

Friday the 13th (my lucky day) is check-in day. I drive up by myself, as it would be painfully boring for Pam and Hannah if they joined me. Actually, I kinda enjoyed this alone time, with the iPod at full volume with Tom Petty singing "I won't back down". As I approach Hwy 89, everybody has a bike rack, and I'm no longer alone. And I'm amazed how many damn ways there are to strap a bicycle to a car. The road there seems rather hilly, but I'll worry about that Saturday. Today, I turn in my release ( I didn't read it but I'm sure it said 129 miles, 16,000 vertical feet, and nothing is their fault) , get my bib and bike numbers, and a bag full of free stuff.  But it's really about the ride. I hit my vagabond motel, with Francis and a pack of Virginia Slims running the check-in desk. "Are you one of those bicycle people?", she asks, careful not to drop her ash on the recently swiffer'ed floor.

Sleep comes hard when you're trying, but I set 3 alarm clocks to make sure I'm up at 4:00. I can start riding anytime after 5:30. It doesn't matter when you start because it's not a race - just get on the course and go. Cool! You know, it's dark at 4:00 am. At 5:00am too. I've been busy getting my bike ready, and sorting my clothes. It'll be cool/cold to start, and warm/hot when I finish. I've got an REI's worth of technical clothing in my possession - I'll find the right stuff. Other cars are leaving the motel parking lot, with several thousand dollars worth of fancy bike racks attaching their days ride to the car. Mine too. Headlights on and little traffic, I feel in the company of a lot of friends on the road. I search for Tom Petty again on the iPod - "I won't back down".

You park about anywhere you want on Hwy 89 near the "start". Some poor guy pulled off the road, found a small ditch, and rolled his car onto its side. The bike, on and expensive Yakima roof rack, looked OK. Did he ride, and fix the car later? Hmmmm. I park on the right, after a wide spot on the margin filled with family members in Winnebegos and a bunch of poor people who just set up their tents right on the side of the road. Dedication!

It's about 5:30 now and cyclists are on the road, riding past my parking space. There will be 3,000 cyclists today. And even more who wanted in but weren't lucky in the lottery. It's happening. I get my bike ready, make decisions about clothing, and food, and click in. I set my odometer to zero. There is no fanfare for this start, but the sun is now on the horizon, and my legs are pedaling. It's the Death Ride, and I'm rolling!

I came up alone, and now share the road with 3,000 people I've never met. But we're no strangers. It's easy to start a conversation. It's morning, we're on our way to the first of 5 mountain passes, and everyone, everyone, is psyched. We're all very different people, retired cops, hippies, triathletes, State workers, engineers, and a guy in a Lyon Real Estate shirt (I pass him with conviction up the back side of Monitor Pass). I see old guys with ponytails to their waists, and young women with shaved heads. I see at least 2 riders under 16. There are 3,000 people here, from every walk of life. But today, we share the one unusual trait, of being, well, unusual.

The first pass is hard, but we're all fresh and we're all happy. We're bicycling and watching the sun come up. That's exciting. If you've ever been to the top of Monitor pass, you know how exciting the view to the east is - unless, that is, you have to ride back up it. Geez, that's a long way down (translation: that's a long way up). But this part of the ride is free. I lock the legs in, tuck the arms, and put my head down. It's steep. That means it'll be steep when I come back up. But now, I still have serious business keeping my skinny, little 20 lb bike following a safe line. I rationally decided to keep my speeds under 40, but it would be easy to be doing 55 (mph). I focus on two things - the next 60 feet, and my front wheel. It's 21 mm wide (my wheel), and that's just not a lot of aluminum between me and the pavement, so it's easy to "feather" the brakes as I approach 40mph. Damn, I'm on the brakes and that's still fast. I'm quickly reminded of the immortality of youth, as several younger riders pass me. I want in, but I remind myself it's not a race. Ahhh, the wisdom of age.

I've described the beginning of the ride - and it just continued for many hours. It really didn't change much, so there is not much to write. Some people did 3 passes, some 4, but I was going for the whole enchilada. So I rode long and steep up each pass, then down. It was hard. There were a lot of people like me. I'd talk to someone for awhile, but we'd be at a different pace and it wouldn't last long. I'd pass a lot of people, and a lot of people would pass me. I recognized a lot of people from all that passing, back and forth. I can't explain the excitement that goes with something so tedious. The passes were all steeper than anything I trained on, and the uphills were long and relentless. But through that odd psychology that I enjoy but don't understand, I was right at home, with all my new friends.

I expected to take about 12 hours, and 11 would have been really nice. But I finished in just under 10 hours. I credit that extra hour to the pure joy of being surrounded by people like me, who can do this, and enjoy this, and can grind for hours up a relentless hill and still converse with a spark in their voice. It's called the Death Ride, but the fact is I saw more life, more human energy, from everyday people, people who go to work, and love their families, and who live in anonymity among the masses. It's an incredibly powerful force, and on this day I witnessed it in mass, and it motivated me, and I can't wait for the next opportunity to see what this kind of energy can do to people.