It's been a week since the 2014 Fireweed 400, a series of 50-400 mile races and one non-race 2Day300K ride. Earlier this spring I'd decided to challenge myself by riding the last of those, what I keep calling the "tourist class" of the Fireweed: ~200 miles in two days. The first day is 110 miles from Sheep Mountain Lodge on the Glenn Highway to Tonsina Lodge on the Richardson Highway. The second day is about 86 miles from Tonsina to Valdez.
Last Friday morning I found myself at Sheep Mountain Lodge impatiently waiting for the Fireweed organizers to show up so I could sign in, get my bib number and goody bag, and get on the road. This attitude was a marked change from the day before when a friend asked me on Facebook if I was ready for my ride. I'd replied, "I suppose, said with an Eeyore sigh." She suggested I needed to channel my inner Pooh instead of Eeyore, a reference to his steadfast nature. Another friend suggested the energy of Tigger would be appropriate for channeling, too. However it happened, I was in a much better mental place by the time Friday morning rolled around.
I'm not quite sure why the organizers arranged a mass start for a ride that wasn't a race, but so it was. We listened to a cheery go-get-em speech and the Star Spangled Banner, had a moment of silence for the race creator who had recently passed away, and all lined up to head east on the Glenn. I enjoyed noting the variety of humans starting that morning: men and women, ages from 10 to 60+, pudgy butts (me) to the woman standing beside me who was training for a half Iron Man triathlon, and even a Type 1 diabetic on a unicycle. It was further proof that we can all do what we put our minds to.
You'll note in the photo above that in addition to a big smile, I'm also wearing a rain jacket. It was very cool (low 40s, I think) that morning, and sprinkling a bit. I was pretty sure I'd be warm enough in my shorts, but I had a backup plan just in case. My friend Wendy, dear, dear Wendy, had volunteered to take a day off work and be my support driver for the ride. Our plan was for her to leapfrog me by 15 to 20 miles, and then wait for me to catch up. Not the most exciting volunteer job ever, but she was looking forward to time to nap and read. Having her help made my life so much easier. I only had to worry about carrying a few necessities; she would be there with water, food, changes of clothes, and whatever else I needed. (I have to thank Wendy, too, for taking all of the photos of me.)
Our first agreed-upon meeting location was Eureka Lodge 15 miles from Sheep Mountain. I had been dreading this bit of highway as I knew it meant I had to start right off riding uphill the entire way. Luckily, my mental and physical energy coincided to make it fairly easy. I spent a mile or two riding slow so I could find out just why someone would choose to ride a unicycle over such distances, and to congratulate a 10-year-old boy for even attempting such a thing with his grandfather. By the time I met Wendy about three miles or so after Eureka (those miles were very long as I was wondering just where the heck she was), I was freezing. I changed into my tights and my new cycling boots - the first time I'd worn them. (By the end of the trip I'd decided they were one of my best purchases ever. I shouldn't have to worry about frostbiting my toes next spring.) A quick snack and I was off again.
I won't bore you with the details of every hill that occurred over the next 60 miles. Suffice it to say that, despite assurances to the contrary, it is not "all downhill" between Eureka and Glennallen, even if there is a total elevation loss of almost 2,000 feet. The last few times I drove this stretch of road I paid careful attention to all of the hills, and I still had no concept of just how hilly it is. There are nearly no flat spots. The only relief to be had from long, shallow climbs and descents were steep climbs that I ground up at 4.5 mph and flew down at 30.
Oh, did I mention the wind? Perhaps from the title of this post you surmised that it blew? When we started riding at 9:00 it was mostly calm, but within an hour it started to blow 15-20 mph. If it wasn't working directly against me, it was blowing from the side in an attempt to knock me over. At no point during the entire day did I get the blessed assist of a tailwind.
It helped during this very long day that I was able to set mental goals for myself. Short ones included catching up to Wendy and knowing I'd get a little break then (although I did occasionally stop in between, too). One bigger goal was to exceed the longest distance I'd ever previously ridden in one day, 65 miles. The junction of the Glenn and Richardson Highways was 75 miles, so it was a natural goal.
As I rode east toward Glennallen, I started to get tired. Not overwhelmingly so, but definitely fatigued. As I crested one hill, I caught my first sight of the Wrangell Mountains which stand further east beyond Glennallen. I have never in my life been so glad to see those glorious mountains. I wish I'd had a better camera than my phone to capture them that day.
At the outskirts of town I was spinning along at fairly good speeds and knew I was about 30 minutes from the Hub, the gas station and convenience store where Wendy was waiting for me. I stopped for a moment and called Wendy on my cell phone to beg her to buy me a bag of plain potato chips and a small bottle of chocolate milk. Manna from heaven it was. Never has anything tasted so good. She even bought me another bottle for later. Mmmmm.
Okay, first major goal reached - longest-mileage day yet. At that point it was "only" another 35 miles to Tonsina Lodge. I couldn't quit then. As I said to Wendy, "I ride 35 miles all the time." Ha! 35 miles after work and 35 miles after 75 miles are two totally different things. The wind blew in my face harder after making the turn south onto the Richardson, and the hills continued to roll. The riders who had started the 400-mile race (crazy people!) at noon all blew by me by the time I was 10 miles south of Glennallen. My turtle-like pace was evident, although I was reasonably pleased that I was still managing over 11 mph despite the hills and wind.
The road continued until finally Wendy passed me on her way to our final meeting point, Tonsina Lodge, another 15 miles away. The longest 15 miles of my life. There were at least two big, 4.5 mph hills, and one final long one that topped out at Pippen Lake. Up to that point I'd been thrilled with my hill-climbing performance. I'd ridden them all (no walking even once), and hadn't even stopped on any of them. That last hill, though, was a killer. It was at least 1.5 miles long, and had a stretch of fine, loose gravel in the middle of it. (Jerk drivers couldn't be bothered to slow down even a little bit as they drove past me.) I never walked, but I think I stopped and restarted at least six times. My quads were tired and I was just generally fatigued. Finally, finally, I crested the hill and got to enjoy the steep spin down to the Tonsina River and the lodge. I do believe the exhaustion is clear on my face in the photo below which Wendy took of me as I pulled into the parking lot. The first thing I did when I stopped was take a photo of my bike computer as proof: 109.47 miles, definitely my longest ride ever.
Wendy and I lucked out and had been able to reserve a room at the lodge - a shower and a real bed! The Fireweed organizers had the lodge provide a wonderfully carb-laden buffet for the riders that was delicious and most welcome. A Mike's Black Raspberry Hard Lemonade topped off the day quite nicely.
Surprisingly, I didn't sleep very well. I woke up tired and achy (the achy part was not surprising). Tigger and Pooh had abandoned me to Eeyore. My enthusiasm for another day's riding was nonexistent; Wendy even commented that it was evident on my face. By 7:30 I was in the saddle again, however, with 86 miles to home ahead of me.
Slow. I was so slow. My legs were tired, the wind was blowing, the hills rolled up and down. I made it the first 15 miles to where Wendy waited across from pump station 12 of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. I knew the next miles didn't contain any big hills, so I sent her ahead another 15 miles to the Mount Billy Mitchell rest stop. My legs warmed up a bit, numbness in my hands and feet waxed and waned, I pedaled on. About five miles out, an excruciating knot developed in my right shoulder and neck. From prior experience I knew it wouldn't get any better. By the time I reached Wendy, after just 30 miles, I'd had enough. I could see no reason to punish myself for another 55 miles just to say I'd done it. Okay, just to say I'd done it was a good enough reason, and I was wracked with guilt for quitting, but I did it anyway. I knew the next 24 miles were all uphill to the top of Thompson Pass, and then it was raining all the way into Valdez. Enough was enough.
I have to admit, I'm still disappointed that I didn't finish, but it's become easier to live with that disappointment. I was so thrilled with my performance over the 110 miles of the first day that I'm very proud of the overall effort.
Will I ever do it again? Who knows. Maybe, just to prove I can, but I think I'm more likely to choose one of the shorter race distances (not to really race, though; I'm not that crazy). I think the 100 mile race would be nice - at least there'd be a tailwind after I turned around and headed back to Sheep Mountain!
Most of all, I am proud that I was out there doing it, not driving by saying "I should be doing that."
For this year however, this effort was enough. I'm glad to be done with training for it and worrying about it. I look forward to enjoying more than just cycling for the rest of the summer.