When Jorge asked me to sign up with him for the 2007 Death Ride, I said yes without really thinking what I was getting myself into. It was only after signing up did I think to look on Felix’s website to see if he had done the race. Sure enough, Felix had conquered the Death Ride in 2002. As I read his ride story, I discovered to my horror what was in store on July 14, 2007: 129 miles and 15,000 to 16,000 feet of climbing over five passes in the California Alps near South Lake Tahoe.
I knew I was in big trouble when I mentally counted out my cycling palmares. With only one century under my belt and maybe a handful of rides where I topped 6,000 feet of climbing, I had a lot of work to do. We got our tickets in March, giving us a scant four months to train. Jorge and Richard are hard-core athletes, so they took to the task of training with gusto. As for me, I employed a variety of successful excuses to limit my bike training, most notably work and the comforts of my Aeron chair.
When I actually did ride, I did not feel anywhere near my peak. What’s worse was the feeling that I had riding with Jorge and Richard — and later Stephen and Gilad — on several of our training rides. I felt fat, slow, and weak as they pulled away from me up the slopes of Mt. Hamilton, King’s Mountain, and Highway 9. My quads and knees were aching and cramping 30 miles in on an “easy” 70-mile ride from San Mateo to Cupertino. I kept telling Rae, “What have I done to myself?”
My goal for the Death Ride was simple. Three passes was all that I could expect. As a result, I tuned my training to this humble goal. In June, I completed my own Triple Summit, a ride that saw me struggle over Page Mill Road, West Alpine, and Montebello Road for nearly 8,000 feet and 82 miles. A few weeks later, I rode the Giro di Peninsula, a 100-mile ride with 7,500 feet of climbing. I sprinkled in a few rides up Highway 9 and to Stanford University.
When I got around to looking at the Death Ride course map, I realized that the third and fourth climbs go over Ebbet’s Pass. In addition, the fourth pass was relatively short at 5 miles long. As a result, shortly before the ride, I announced to the group that my new goal was four passes.
The Ultimate Goal
The lure of completing all five passes, however, was always in the back of my mind. I simply did not think that I could physically do it, given my lack of overall fitness and the utter insanity of the length, elevation gain, and altitude of the ride. I scoured the web for as much information I could gather for tips on how other people were able to complete the ride. I discovered that many people started early, sometimes an hour to two hours before the official ride start of 5:30 am. I then determined that if I wanted to even entertain the idea of finishing all five passes, I had to start at least an hour ahead, at 4:30 am.
The night of the race, we had a large pre-race meal cooked by Jorge of penne pasta with grilled salmon. Gilad provided the salad, and we also had our share of fruit and bread. I’ve never ate so well before a race! I called it in for the night at 10:00 pm. I guess I was amped up for the race, because I proceeded to wake up every hour on the hour. I couldn’t believe that the day had arrived, and that in a few short hours I would be on the road. At 3:00 am, I woke up for good and began changing and packing the car. Rae and I drove to the start line, getting there shortly after 4:15 am. I was on the road at 4:30 am, exactly the time I had set for myself.
Monitor Pass, Frontside
While the forecast for the ride was in the upper 80s, at 4:30 in the morning, it was more like 40°. Even with a jacket and knee warmers, I was freezing! Shivering as I started the descent from Turtle Rock Park to the junction of Monitor and Ebbet’s Pass, I struggled to maintain control of the bike. Fortunately, there weren’t that many cyclists on the road at this time of day.
In other rides I’ve gone on with significant climbing, there’s plenty of flat road between climbs. In the Death Ride, however, you often have to climb just to get to a pass! I wonder how much elevation gain is made up by these rolling hills, a few thousand feet perhaps? After a short downhill section, I had to climb a little bit to reach the junction. I almost missed the junction and was going to start the climb to Ebbet’s when a race organizer told me to turn left.
I took my near course skipping as an opportunity for my first break. I had read that it was very important, especially at altitude, to hydrate yourself properly before and during the race. There were no lines at the bathroom, and I was soon off and away climbing Monitor Pass.
My Lactate Threshold is about 170 beats per minute. On the frontside of Monitor Pass, I was hitting the mid to high 160s, which is not a good sign. Struggling on my easiest gear, my hopes for five passes receeded further back in my mind. The frontside of Monitor Pass was supposed to be one of the easiest; how was I ever going to get up Ebbet’s Pass, which we had driven up the day before and watched with dread the 10-12 percent grades?
I just tried to settle into a rhythm. On the Death Ride, there are two truths. (1) There are no special pins for finishing first and (2) there’s always going to be someone faster than you. One thing that helped was riding with another person. I met Dean from Sonoma, who was also riding his first Death Ride. He also had the goal of completing all five passes and was well-trained having done numerous centuries beforehand. Both of us were riding around the same pace, so we took the opportunity to climb together to the top of Monitor Pass. Dean decided to keep going and rest at the bottom of the backside of Monitor Pass, while I took the opportunity once again to fill up my water bottles, go to the bathroom, and eat some snacks before heading down the backside of Monitor. I took my first photos of the ride with my iPhone. Sadly, there was no cell coverage throughout the race except in Woodfords, so I wasn’t able to update my website and Flickr stream in real-time.
Monitor Pass, Backside
My first fast descent of the day was also the most dangerous. The backside of Monitor is where the first casualty in the Death Ride’s history occurred in 2002, the same year in which Felix rode. I could see how one could wipe out and get seriously injured, especially since there are both slower and faster riders descending at the same time. There were times when I was passing a slower rider to my left while another rider was passing me on my left! Fortunately, since it was still early in the morning, there were fewer people who were climbing the backside of Monitor, making the descent reasonably safe. Their numbers grew the closer we got to the bottom. After 15-20 minutes, I received my second sticker of the day; only three more to go!
At registration, each rider received a plastic bag and rider number sticker. It was here at Topaz Point where I put my jacket, bike lights, and some excess food that I had brought into the bag. The sun was out and the temperature was rising, so I certainly didn’t want to be carrying this stuff all the way back up.
What goes up must come down, and the converse is true with the Death Ride. It was here where I became demoralized with my (lack of) form. I lost track of how many people passed me up the backside of Monitor, including a guy riding a single-speed mountain bike! Turns out this guy is a friend of Felix’s, Joe Miller. He completed the entire ride in 9 hours and 8 minutes, with only 14 minutes and 22 seconds of “rest” time. Joe rode the entire Death Ride in a 32/16 gear, whereas my easiest gear was a 34/25. Hardcore is all I can say. My cadence up Monitor was probably in the 40-50 rpm range. Cycling books recommend that on hills you keep a cadence of at least 60 rpm to prevent your muscles from getting overworked. I could feel my quads and knees getting sore while trudging up at 5 mph up Monitor.
The worst part of the climb was that my heart rate monitor decided to crap out on me! A few days before, I had bought a new battery for the watch, but I did not replace the sensor battery, as it is a sealed-type and is not user-replaceable. Thus, for the remaining 100 miles, I could only rely on my own mental monitor. Anytime I found myself breathing too hard or felt my heart beating too quickly, I slowed down.
Over an hour later, I found myself back at the top of Monitor Pass. I decided not to stop at the rest stop and began the descent down the frontside of Monitor. I honestly don’t remember too much of the descent other than I was glad to have finished two passes so early in the day. The Death Ride is nice in that you can quit after any of the passes. I was tired, but I wasn’t about to quit yet.
Ebbet’s Pass, Frontside
On our drive up to Ebbet’s Pass the day before, I noticed how there was an uphill before you even got to the actual pass itself. Sure enough, from the junction of Monitor and Ebbet’s, there’s a stretch of 5 miles before the real climb begins. Starting at the cattle gate, Ebbet’s was relentless, with patches at 10% and 12%. Three things made the pain of climbing Ebbet’s tolerable. First, we had calculated the exact distance of the climb to be about 6 miles in length. Second, we had several landmarks to help us determine our progress: the cattle grate to start the climb, the sheer cliff in the middle, and the lake a mile from the end. Finally, though my heart rate monitor wasn’t working, my bike computer was, and I used that to determine how much further I had to go.
The frontside of Ebbet’s Pass was the hardest climb of the day next to Carson pass. My legs were seriously starting to cramp anytime I tried to strech them out. The only thing that kept them from locking up completely was continuing to pedal one stroke at a time.
I was heartened to see at the start of the climb that even the strong cyclists were bemoaning the steepest of the grade. Though they continued to pass me at a quick pace, I could tell that they too were suffering. They were human, after all!
I stopped a few times during the climb to rest and take some photos. I wish I could have mounted a camera on the front of my bike, as it would made it easy to take photos during the ride. I didn’t feel comfortable whipping out the iPhone while climbing or descending.
Ebbet’s Pass, Backside
While climbing the backside of Ebbet’s, I saw Jorge, Stephen, Richard, and Gilad descending. They were about 45 minutes down. Would they catch me at the end? I also ran into Dean again. For most of the backside climb, we rode up together in silence, as even talking proved to be strenuous. Though steep, the backside of Ebbet’s was short at only five miles. In an hour, I was back at the top. Four passes done and it’s only about 1:00 pm?
Descending Ebbet’s Pass, Frontside
The highlight of the entire ride was gunning down the frontside of Ebbet’s Pass. It was a very technical descent, complete with several hairpin turns and blind corners, not to mention the section with the no-guardrails cliff. Confident in my ability to descend and no doubt aided by my excess weight, I flew down the mountain, passing everyone along the way. I must have screamed, “Passing Left!” about two dozen times, and I must admit that it felt great to be passing people instead of being passed. I did take it easy on some of the sharp turns. It turns out there are people who get injured coming down Ebbet’s. I never saw accidents, but Jorge and the gang said they heard of several throughout the day.
It’s funny that I’ve become a better descender now than a climber. Back when I started riding in 1997, I was 15-20 pounds lighter and my forte was climbing. Now that I’m heavier, my climbing has suffered, but my descending has improved. Go figure!
Lunch at Centerville Flat
It was 1:30 by the time I reached the lunch stop at Centerville Flat. With four passes under the belt and 2.5 hours to reach the next cut-off time at Woodfords, I knew that I could finish all five passes if I so desired. At this point, there was no other decision. I was going to finish! I relaxed quit a bit under a shaded tree at Centerville, eating a sandwich and drinking a Coke. I spoke with another guy named Dean, who was well on his way to completing his 10th Death Ride in a row! I was thinking to myself that one Death Ride was enough for me as I got back on my bike.
Rolling hills punctuated the ride between the lunch stop and the next rest stop at Woodfords, located a few miles beyond the starting point at Turtle Rock Park. Again, on the descents, I was passing most people, but on the uphill sections, I was back to being the turtle, grinding away on my 34-25 gear. It took a little over an hour before I reached Woodfords.
At the base of the valley, there was actually cell phone coverage, so I took the time to call Rae and tell her that I was completing the ride. “I can make it!” I told her. Three hours I reckoned was all that stood between me and the top of Carson Pass. I didn’t count the 15-20 miles back from Carson to Turtle Rock, since most of it was downhill.
To get to the start of Carson Pass, you had to ride 10 miles uphill to Picketts Junction. It was here where everyone was going slow; even the strong riders seemed to have slowed down quite a bit from earlier in the day. With a slight headwind, it’s important to ride as much as possible behind someone. Fortunately for me, I was able to latch onto a pack of four to five riders as we slowly made our way up to Picketts. We were going slow, about 5 mph, but every bit of wind-blocking helped. At this point, I had ridden farther and higher than I’ve ever ridden before, and my body was signaling to me than shutdown was imminent. Right before we reached the rest stop, one of the riders in front of me decided to stop. I was very close behind the guy in front of me, and I crashed into him, toppling over to my left onto the ground. Both my legs seized up and cramped, and I literally had to grab and bend them back into a straight position!
At the Picketts Junction, I rested for several minutes under a shaded canopy. I could have stayed there longer, but I only had 9-10 more miles to go! As I took my bike out from the rack, I felt the rear wheel and noticed it was going a little flat. Flat? How long had I been riding with this slow leak?!? It could have happened when I fell down a few moments ago, or Icould have been riding like this for the past 20 or so miles. I mistakenly asked the bike mechanic at Picketts just to pump it up instead of replacing the tube. Soon after he pumped it up to 110 psi, I was off to the top.
The first four miles from Picketts were relatively easy. The last five or six miles, however, were decidedly more difficult. The top of the pass mocked us as we trudged our way slowly at 4 mph. Thoughts of the ice cream and the 5-pass sticker were all that kept me going. About 2-3 miles from the top, a rider came up to me and said, “Your rear tire looks a little flat.” Sure enough, the slow leak was still there, and my tire felt like it was down to 60 psi. I could have kept going, but I decided to replace the tube. After all, I could “rest” and be strong for the last few miles, right? In next 10 minutes, dozens of cyclists passed me, including 10-time Death Ride conquerer Dean, asking me if everything was okay. There were no incidents with replacing the tube, and I was soon back on the bike.
The mini-break wasn’t all that restful for my legs, and I soon found myself on the ground after wobbling onto the dirt shoulder. At 4 mph, handling is dicey. My legs locked up for one last time, and I took my final rest before the summit. It was just around the bend, everyone kept saying! They weren’t lying. After a sweeping right turn, the finish line was in sight! I had made it just before 6:00 pm, 13.5 hours after I had begun. I was exhausted as I came to the entrance of the rest stop, where the organizers slapped the final sticker on my jersey number and handed me a Klondike ice cream bar.
Several minutes later, I saw that Jorge and Richard had finished. Stephen wasn’t far behind, but unfortunately, they told me that Gilad had a bad case of cramps and knee pain and had to stop after four passes. Stanley was another rider who rode with them for much of the ride at the top. I also saw the two Deans and congratulated them both. The ice cream bar was great and refreshing, and the camaraderie with all of the other survivors was rewarding.
Before I descended down, I made sure to get the race mechanic to pump up my tire. My little hand pump could only inflate my rear wheel to 40 psi, and he got it back up to 110 psi. It helped quite a bit on the descent, as I once again used my superior weight to fly down Carson Pass at 55 mph. Like Felix, I had the thrill of passing a car at highway speeds. It wasn’t a big rig like in Felix’s case, but a red SUV.
We soon stopped at Jorge’s car, near the entrance to Turtle Rock Park. I had no desire to keep on riding, and Jorge graciously drove me and my bike to the entrance, where Rae was waiting patiently for me. We signed the five pass finisher poster and ate what remaining food was left before heading back to our rental home in South Lake Tahoe. I took a shower and quickly passed out on the bed.
The Death Ride was an utterly exhausting physical experience. I can’t imagine how Tour de France riders do this day in, day out for three weeks. One is enough for me, as I proclaimed to everyone who would hear that I was officially retiring from long-distance bike races for good. Dean, who had completed his first Death Ride, was of the same accord. Days later, I’m still weary and sore from the experience. There’s no way that I’m going to be riding the Marin Century in two weeks!
Low-key Hillclimbs, on the other hand, are a different story. I’m hoping to be in peak form in two months for Montebello Road!
I do want to give a shout out to everyone who said that I could do it. J.T. from Low-Key, Felix, Jorge, Gilad, Richard, Stephen, Dean (2), and Rae. Thanks for supporting me!
Miscellany and Photos
Here’s a list of miscellaneous stuff and photos from the Death Ride 2007.
- Cytomax is disgusting. Apparently, other people think that Cytomax is nectar from the Devil himself.
- A triple would have been nice.
- My stem is too long. A 100 or 90 would be better than my existing 110.
- I could have done without either one water bottle or the hydration pack. I wonder how much extra weight I was packing in unessential items.
- Having some Endurolyte pills would have been nice too.
- If you’re slow like me, start earlier than the 5:30 am official start time.
Some cycling stats from my ride:
- Distance: 127 miles (I stopped by Jorge’s car, outside of Turtle Rock Park)
- Average Speed: 11.3 mph
- Max speed: 55+ mph
- Actual time riding: 12:35
- Total time: Roughly 14:30