DNF. Those dreaded three letters you NEVER want to see in association with your name during an event. It means you’ve failed. All that training, all the preparation, all the money, and the goal remains elusively unmet. Did Not Finish.
There I stood, 367 miles into my first 1200 kilometer event, 45 minutes late into the 7th control point, knowing that if I chose to continue I would be riding “unofficially”, solo, and without support for another 367 miles in the Sierra back country while facing 20+ mph headwinds and rising daytime temperatures. I was offered a chance at an official finish due to extenuating circumstances IF I could make it out to the final turn-around and back to this control within the time limits which would keep me at the back of the pack but with support. So there I stood with a decision to make. Could I reasonably ride another 40 solo miles, half of it into a headwind which was leaving other riders exhausted and ready to quit, and do it in less than 5 hours to stay within the remaining time limits? And, could I then manage to ride another 327 with another 10,000 feet of climbing between me and the finish?
How did I get here???
Randonneuring. The “art” of long distance, self-supported cycling. There are enough people who do this stuff that there is actually an international organization with multiple chapters in the United States. I joined several years ago after my first century (100 mile) ride. Having a goal helps me to have a focus for training. One of the benefits of belonging to an organization like RUSA is that they have created a series of awards and events to challenge the motivated rider to try new things, improve skills, see new places, and continue to grow. One of the easiest awards to achieve is the R-12. All you have to do is ride any officially registered route of 200k (125ish miles) or longer per calendar month for 12 consecutive months. For each ride, you must reach each “control” point (point at which you check in or gather a receipt from a local business to prove you were there) within the time limits, and finish the entire ride within the time limit set by RUSA. These events can be done on your own as a “permanent”, or with the local chapter as a “brevet”. I completed my first R-12 in 2012, and have been working on my second in 2013.
Another award in the world of RUSA is the “Super Randonneur”. To achieve this award, the rider must complete a series of events in one calendar year which include a 200k, 300k (180ish miles), 400k (250ish miles), and 600k (365ish miles). Completing this series is a significant undertaking which can involve a lot of travel if you don’t live in an area with an active RUSA chapter. Completion of a series qualifies the RUSA member for the coup de grace of randonneuring, the 1200k (746ish miles) event. The quintessential and original 1200k is Paris-Brest-Paris, held every 4 years in France. Each year there are several RUSA chapters in the US who put together their own 1200k events right here. For 2013, these included the Texas Stampede, the Gold Rush Randonnee, and the Last Chance 1200k among others. I completed the Super Randonneur Series in May, and immediately signed up for the one closest to home…the Gold Rush Randonnee.
I had one month to prepare. You’d think “What preparation? Just get on your bike and go!” Right? Well, it’s not quite so simple. The Davis Bike Club always puts on well organized, well supported events, and this is no exception. To make an event like this happen, the organizers have to design a route, have it sanctioned by RUSA, find staff to maintain control points which need to include places for exhausted riders to sleep, provide food or control locations where food is available for purchase, come up with volunteers to run all the details, then keep track of where all their riders are throughout a 4 day event. For this particular 1200k, I was allowed two drop bags which would be sent ahead to controls I would pass by twice each. I needed to figure out how much of my own food to carry, what was going to go immediately on my bike and what was going to go into each bag. I needed to figure out what layers I needed to survive daytime high temperatures in the 90s and night time lows in the 40s, and where I was likely to need these items so they were in the appropriate bags. I needed to have reliable lights for overnight riding, back-up lights in case any of the primary lights failed, and enough power to keep lights and gps working for what could be as long as 90 hours of continuous use. Power and gps unit functionality have been ongoing challenges as my rides have gotten longer and longer, and for an event of this length it was critical that all the pieces work perfectly. I had a month to get ready, and preparation took over my life.
The route for this event began in Davis, CA which is approximately 500 miles from my home in San Diego. The ride start was 6pm on Monday, June 24. I opted to drive on Sunday, with plans to get an early enough start to be in position at my hotel by dinner time. I had checked the extended weather forecast early in the week, and was confident that I had the right clothing for the conditions. Somehow, the early part of my weekend got out of control and I found myself preparing my home made food and finishing packing in the wee hours of Sunday morning rather than early Saturday evening. I slept in later than planned on Sunday and suddenly it was 1:00pm and I was still in San Diego. Oops! I went to load the car and discovered my entire key ring was missing. Thankfully, I was able to find a spare key to my car and this was not a show stopper. Starting out that late, I ran into traffic. My 8 hour drive became an 11 hour drive and I finally arrived in Davis tired, frazzled, and late. I still thought I had plenty of time, so I didn’t set an alarm. Starting out well rested is critical.
I woke up at 10am, and found it cloudy in Davis. Huh. I checked the weather forecast and discovered there had been a dramatic change since I last looked. A rare summer storm was bearing down on the Sierra Nevada, and up to 3 inches of rain was anticipated for the mountains. I brought rain gear – my old Goretex jacket which had failed to keep me fully dry in my last rainy brevet in San Diego. It was adequate for weather protection during a passing afternoon thunderstorm, but nowhere near up to the weather I was suddenly faced with. I pulled up Google and found an REI 20 miles away in Sacramento. $270 later, I had a shiny new rain jacket and warmer gloves. It was now 1:30pm and I hadn’t had breakfast yet. Ran back to Davis, had a big lunch of Thai food, then hit the local Target for plastic bags and rubber bands. Bike lights and gps units are designed to be water resistant, but have been known to fail after a few hours of being water logged. I was now faced with having to keep everything dry enough to keep on running for what could easily be 24 hours or more of water immersion.
Check-in and bike inspection was from 3-5pm. I arrived a bit flustered at 4:15. Picked up my rider packet, handed off my drop bags, put all the stuff on the bike, plastic wrapped everything I could manage to encase, got my car into a long-term parking location, and barely had all of that in place for the 5:45pm rider briefing. Plans of a large and leisurely dinner were replaced by a Cliff Bar, a banana, and some almonds.
6pm. A field of 72 riders took off into a light drizzle. Everyone was excited, sharing stories about the rides they had done to prepare for this event. I talked to riders from Minnesota, Northern and Southern California, and Australia. We quickly split into two packs, with the faster riders sprinting through the flat initial 80 miles and 30 or so of us “slower” folks taking a more reasonable pace. I’m on the slower end of the rider spectrum, and I rapidly fell to the back of the pack. Mile 35, we had a group potty stop. Men “whipped it out”, women turned their rears away from the road and dropped their shorts, and we all relieved the products of pre-hydration on the side of a country road in the middle of nowhere. Shorts back in place, we ventured onward with the pack keeping a blistering 20mph pace through relatively flat terrain. It drizzled on and off, but so far the weather wasn’t too bad. The first control was a water stop in Oroville. I had fallen off the pack and ridden solo for awhile coming in to this stop, but left with two men. One took off ahead, and Craig and I chattered along. We were both navigationally challenged, and missed a few turns getting through this area. It was 1:30am, and my brain was beginning to experience the effects of fatigue. Thankfully, my trusty Garmin 500 beeped at me every time we went astray, and we were quickly back on track. Outside of Oroville, the route began to climb steadily. The grade wasn’t too bad – typically between 3-5%. The time passed relatively quickly as we chattered away. As the night went on, the weather got steadily worse. By 2:30am, it was a steady downpour with dropping temperatures. We hit the first big descent at about 4:00am. Craig was cold and eager to get to Tobin. He was a faster descender, and got ahead of me. He was well out of sight but I figured I’d catch back up with him in Tobin.
Suddenly, there was an object in the road in front of me. I wasn’t certain of what it was, and I didn’t have enough warning to completely avoid it without sending my bike into a skid on wet pavement. I turned the wheel enough to hit with a glancing blow. There was a sickening crunch and the bike was launched sideways. Next thing I knew, I was tangled up in a ditch with the Maggie (my bike). Nothing like experiencing my first bike crash 100 miles into a 1200k at 4:00am in a downpour. I stayed where I was for a moment and took stock of my body. I was shaken up, but nothing was immediately painful and all the parts seemed to be in working order. I slowly disentangled myself from Maggie, wiggling fingers and toes. I was able to stand up, and the initial assessment that my body was relatively undamaged continues to hold true. I checked on the bike, and found a front flat. No surprise there, but not what I wanted to see. I pulled on an extra layer of clothing, yanked out the gear, and set about changing that tire. With cold, wet hands I put all the tools away and pulled the bike back onto the road. The rear wheel wouldn’t move. I muttered a few expletives, pulled out my head lamp, and took a look. Thankfully it was nothing serious. My cadence sensor had been pushed into the spokes and was impeding wheel rotation, an easy fix. And the rear tire was also flat. Several more expletives, and all the tools were back out as I set to fixing the second flat. A fire truck happened to pass me, and they stopped to help. The paramedic helped me move the bike a few hundred feet up the road where there was a pull-out which was a bit safer than where I was. He was not the most skilled at bicycle tire changing and at that point, neither was I. The two of us wrestled with getting the tire back onto the rim, and eventually everything was back together, the tools were returned to the bag, and I was on my way. It was still raining steadily, but it was now 5am and daylight was slowly coming on. I finished the descent and followed the Feather River through three tunnels into the Tobin control. I was now an hour behind schedule, hypothermic, hypoglycemic, and generally a mess.
The folks running the control at Tobin checked out my bike and advised two new tires. I hadn’t realized it, but both had significant tears and there was a boatload of gravel in my rims. They told me I was extremely lucky to have been able to make it the 10 or so miles I rode to get there. I had a plate of food, and took a 30 minute nap, while they changed the tires for me, then I was off again.
7:30am. The rain was coming down. I’d been solo for about 4 hours. I was tired, and the crash was on auto-replay in my head. The route climbed steadily along the Feather River Gorge which is stunningly beautiful even in the rain. I started singing show tunes to keep myself awake. Then the Beatles, then Simon and Garfunkle. For over an hour I sang until my voice gave out and I ran out of songs I knew the words to. I gradually settled into that inevitable groove where your mind finally shuts off the chatter and the mental quiet sets in. I was warm again from the exertion of riding, I couldn’t get any wetter than I already was, my tummy was full enough with the snacking I’d been doing, and it was clear that I wasn’t going to have any company for a very long time. I pedaled and enjoyed the deeply meditative state.
At some point in the afternoon I pulled to the side of the road for another bladder break and to deal with the inevitable effects of being in wet shorts for long hours. Another rider came along and stopped to make sure I was alright, and we rode on together. Mike was a faster rider, and he had stopped in the last town to throw his wet stuff in a Laundromat dryer and take a quick nap. We rode into Taylorsville together. I had a bag there, so I was able to change into dry shorts and socks and have a quick meal. I had been looking forward to some homemade rice bars I’d packed in that drop bag, but discovered that something unpleasant had grown in them while they made the trip from San Diego to the middle of nowhere. The spoiled bars went into the trash and pasta salad went into my belly. I had been thinking about a nap in Taylorsville, but the control was staffed by the local 4-H and was full of pre-teens who had been cooped up inside on a rainy day. After the silence on the road, the noise level was beyond overwhelming and I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I stuffed a turkey sandwich in my pocket, reloaded on water and electrolytes, and we were off. The route kept climbing steadily, following a creek which had become a roaring river with all the rain. The gorge was stunning, the road pretty good, and the rain a steady drizzle with periods of downpour. We hit the water control at the top of Janesville Grade at about 7:45pm, perfectly positioned to take the steepest most dangerous downhill of the route while we still had daylight. A quick stop to refill water, eat part of that sandwich, and empty well-hydrated bladders and we were off. We made it down the grade without incident, and stopped at the bottom to turn on lights and prepare for another night on the bike.
Darkness rapidly descends in the Sierra on a rainy night, and quickly our world was reduced to what our headlights illuminated. Fatigue and sleep deprivation started by set in, and it suddenly it became hard to stay awake. I pulled out a bag of Honey Stinger Chews – a product like an oversized gummy bear with sugar and electrolytes – and sucked on them one at a time to give my brain something to focus on as well as providing a steady supply of glucose to my body. We limped into the control at Susanville, wolfed down some lasagna and huge cups of coffee then headed to the cots for a much needed hour nap.
I left Susanville feeling ready to take on the world. It’s amazing how good you can feel after only an hour of sleep. But, the feeling was short lived as we crawled up the grade to Antelope Valley. It wasn’t long before I was starting to nod off again. I stopped a few times for micro naps while standing over the handlebars, and kept sucking on those Honey Stingers. Mike was getting concerned about making the Adin control on time, and eventually just went on ahead. A few miles before Grasshopper, I was ready to quit. I had two near misses where I woke up as I felt the bike start to shift below me. Every tree was hiding a forest creature looking for a dinner of female bicycle rider. Coyotes howling off in the distance sounded like wild hungry carnivores. It was eerie, but I was too numb with fatigue to be truly afraid. It had finally stopped raining, and occasionally the moon would poke through the clouds. I thought about pulling out a space blanket and napping on the side of the road, but just couldn’t convince myself that I would be safe from drunk motorists or nighttime hunters. I made it to Grasshopper and thoughts of quitting and going to bed there were dashed by the raucous ruckus of snores coming from the only available sleeping space. I was not the only rider to get to that point ready to give up, but I was the last! The guys at the control commented that I seemed to be in much better shape than the somnolent ones before me, and urged me to continue on the road. I filled one of my water bottles with a gnarly mix of coffee, cocoa, and protein powder and got back on the bike.
Daybreak and coffee helped for a while with the sleepiness, and I rode strong for a few more hours. Light revealed that the spruce forests of the high Sierra had been replaced with dessert scrub. It looked almost lunar in the early morning light, and listening to all the birds waking up helped me stay awake. It was mostly downhill from there into the next control at Adin, and I rode strong for about an hour before the drowsiness caught up with me again. Two breaks to stretch and close my eyes beside the bike, and finally I pulled into Adin with two minutes to spare.
I needed food, and I desperately needed sleep. But it was 40 miles to the next control at Alturas, and I had only 4.5 hours to get there before the control closed. I had some soup, and decided to let safety prevail. I wanted two hours of sleep, but compromised with the clock and took 30 minutes. I was back on the bike at 8am, and needed to be to Alturas by 11:24. Under “normal” circumstances, this should have been easy. But with 2 hours of sleep in 36 hours of riding, I was not at my best. About 5 miles out of Adin, I got to yet another hill. Garmin read it as a 7% grade, but my legs felt as if I was trying to summit Everest. When my speed was down to 3.5mph, I got off the bike and pushed it the last half mile. The next few miles were a beautiful descent followed by a fast flat run through a valley with a stiff tail wind. Suddenly, life was good again. The pain in my sit bones became less intense, the sun was taking the chill out of my still wet clothes. I had real doubt as to whether I would make it to Alturas in time, but was preparing an argument in my head for making an exception to the timing due to extenuating circumstances so I could still try for an official finish. I had visions of the victory at the end, finishing this epic adventure despite a crash.
Then, with 20 miles of the 42 to Alturas completed, I made a turn which took me uphill and into the wind. The road meandered through a glorious valley, turning alternately into and away from the wind. I pedaled and pedaled, and gradually wore myself out. Thoughts of begging to finish were replaced by thoughts of begging for a ride. I envied the cows grazing in the pasture – they didn’t have to pedal a bicycle loaded up with 30 pounds of extra gear, they just got to enjoy the wind on their backs. The pain in my butt was back with a vengeance, my feet started to feel that burning nerve pain they sometimes get, both hands were going numb. At one point, I stopped the bike, sat down on the side of the road and melted down. It was 11:15 and I still had 9 miles to go. There was no way I was going to make it in time.
I stretched for a bit, cried a lot, and finally got up and started pushing the bike. My butt hurt too much to contemplate the seat, and Alturas was not getting any closer while sitting on the side of the road. Eventually, I got back on and pedaled slowly. No exertion, just spinning at about 4 mph. I slowly got my head back together. Since time was no longer an issue, I stopped frequently and took pictures. I finally made it to Alturas at 12:10pm.
The person at the check-in offered me a choice. He had heard about my crash, and the girl who landed in a ditch with two flats and proceeded to ride another 250 miles had become something of a legend to the Davis Bike Club. He was willing to make a call to the organizers and request an exception for me to continue on for an official finish. Part of me wanted to go for it. I had worked so hard to get to that point, and I wanted the official finish so badly. I was also watching other riders who had completed the final 20 miles to the turn around, and were limping back into Alturas looking as if they’d been trying to push a dinosaur for 20 miles. Every one of them complained about the fierce head wind on the return, and all said it had taken an hour longer to return than to go out. I was the last rider, so there would be nobody to share draft pulls with. If I started down the path of those last 20 outbound miles, I was buying myself a ticket to a solo headwind extravaganza. If I was unable to make the inbound controls on time, I was also looking at having no water/food/sleep stops. And, the sag support was very limited and would be focused on the mass of riders further up the course. I had a decision to make.
I melted down again into a puddle of tears in front of 5 control workers. There is a point in some adventures where you know in your heart that you’ve given all you have and it is time to let go. As much as I wanted the official finish, I knew it was unlikely that I would be able to ride another 380 miles with 10,000 feet of climbing. The thought of two more sleepless nights solo on the bike was daunting, and since I had been pushing my bike up a 7% grade the prospect of trying to get up the 12% climb out of Susanville was more than I could bear. My decision was made.
I had a bowl of soup, and some fruit. Lots of water. Slowly I started to feel a little better. Since I was not going to ride my bike back to Davis, I had to figure out how to get myself and a bike back. In all of my planning, figuring out a plan-b for getting back to civilization from the outback of the Sierra Nevada never occurred to me. It is, in fact, a non-trivial problem. As luck would have it, one of the staff at that control needed to head back to Berkley early. He had enough room in his car for a person and a bike, was thrilled to have company for the drive, and willing to make a detour through Sacramento to get me back into town. I knew I was going to ride my bike a long way, but I assumed it would be only an hour or two back into Davis by freeway. Wrong! Alturas is truly in the middle of nowhere, and freeways don’t exist in that part of California. It took over 6 hours to get back to Davis from there. Bruce, my ride angel, regaled me with stories of his PBP adventures, his attempts to ride the Gold Rush Randonnee, his years as a climbing instructor at University of Colorado, Boulder. The time passed quickly, and eventually I was back to the where it all began.
While I did not finish 1200k, I did ride 367 miles, climbed approximately 16,600 feet, and slept for 2 of 42 hours. My lights and Garmin worked perfectly despite the wet weather, and the new rain jacket and gloves were worth their weight in gold.
Ultra cycling is kind-of like a modern day vision quest. You go off into the wild, often alone for extended periods of time, and you face whatever comes at you. You experience discomfort and sometimes true pain. You experience intense joy and the simple pleasure of moving yourself through stunning scenery at the pace of a bicycle. Sometimes you drive or fly long distances with a bike to get to the starting point, which is an adventure in itself. You learn to jerry-rig bicycle parts which have quit working, how to fix a flat on the fly, and how to keep on going even when you want to lie down and quit. You meet interesting people along the way who sometimes become close friends. When you are riding alone in the middle of the night, you stare all of your demons in the face. How you handle it begins to define who you are, and the strength and wisdom you gain carries over into the rest of your life. It is no accident that vision quests were part of coming of age in ancient civilizations where self-reliance and wisdom were critical to survival.
So, what have I learned from this experience? Lots! I’ve learned that when it is required, I can dig deeply into a well of strength and I am capable of getting up after a crash, changing two flat tires in the pouring rain, and moving on.
I’ve learned that it is a really good idea to get into position a day earlier that I think I need to, because there is ALWAYS some detail overlooked which takes time to sort out. It is better to be a bit bored for a day before starting a ride than to be running around crazy up until the last second.
I’ve learned a lot about sleep deprivation and I know there is a lot more to understand. Learning how to manage this will be a big part of the path to success with events of this distance. My melt downs were because exhaustion removed all the emotional filters and left nothing but raw feelings. Sleep deprivation can lead to alterations in mood, hallucinations, blood sugar irregularities, and other physical issues. I need to figure out how, as a slower rider, I can manage to get more sleep time into these multi-day events. I suspect there will be a few more DNF experiences in my life before I get that one sorted out!
And, I’ve reconnected with the angels who watch over me. At the time of the crash, I was too cold, wet, numb, and shaken up to really process what had just happened. With a good night of sleep and a few solid meals under my belt, I’ve had some time to reflect on that. I was beyond lucky. The road through the Jarbo Gap is narrow, relatively curvy, and carries a lot of logging traffic. In many places, cliffs come straight down to the road and there is minimal shoulder. Had I gone over the bars and landed immobile in the road, any truck coming around the corner above me would not have seen me until it was too late to stop. Instead, I was in a good position with my hands in the drops. I was able to steer the bike a little even after hitting the rock, and there was a soft shoulder with a drop off into a shallow ditch where I landed. Because it was a soft landing and I was wearing rain gear, I was saved from road rash and broken bones. I walked away with some bruises, a slightly sprained wrist, and a whole lot of muscle aches many of which would have been there anyway.
At the time I opted to take a ride back to Davis, 31 other riders had also given up leaving 41 intrepid randonneurs still on the course. One had crashed and broken his hip, another was having shoulder pain which wouldn’t let up. Someone else had saddle sores which got too bad for him to continue. Several simply got fed up with the weather. I recognized some of the names, and they were all more experienced and faster riders than I am. I ran into Craig in Alturas as he was finishing the return from Davis Creek. He had been asking about me, but since I was so far behind the other riders, nobody he talked to knew what had happened on that descent into Tobin. He was relieved to see I was ok and it was good to see he was still riding strong. I never saw Mike again after we separated on that dark road to Grasshopper. As of this writing, both Craig and Mike are still out on the course, somewhere between Tobin and Oroville. Hopefully, they’ve been able to get a little sleep and will finish strong.
The elephant in the room, the inevitable question, remains. Would I do it again? The answer is an emphatic “YES!” Davis Bike Club offers their 1200k every 4 years, so I have a long wait to tackle this one again. Meanwhile, I’m eyeing the Last Chance Brevet in September and seriously considering Paris-Brest-Paris when it is next offered in 2015. Am I crazy? Perhaps. But, it’s the insanity which keeps me sane!
P.S. This is the kind of undertaking which can’t be done fully on your own. I want to give heart felt thanks to a few special people who make it possible for me to keep on going. First, the angel who was looking out for me on that crash. You know who/what you are, I’m sure you’re reading this, and I’m sincerely glad you’re there. Next, my amazing husband, Shaun, who never stops encouraging me to ride longer and harder and sign up for that next event, even though it means a lot of lonely weekends for himself. I love you with all my heart. My mother in-law, Sandra, who got me started down that path when she declared “You’re riding 20 miles? We’ve got to do Oklahoma!” My father-in law, the consummate instigator, who sent me the link to RUSA’s website and the San Diego chapter after I did my first century and regularly sends me links to other events to try. My parents, Helene and Ed, who always give me the “you’re crazy” reality check I routinely chose to ignore, perhaps just to prove them wrong. That is the kid’s job, after all, lol. My friend David who rides with me 3 mornings a week and has been on his own ultra-cycling journey, who loaned me his lights so I didn’t have to buy extras for this trip. My friend Elaine who rode with me on my first double century and has accompanied me on nearly all of my R-12 rides AND completed the entire Super Randonneur series with me. The guys at Hi-Tech Bicycles and Performance Bicycles who keep Maggie in working order and help me to jerry-rig racks onto a bike not designed to handle them so I could carry all of my stuff. And all the wonderful friends who text encouragement, comment on my endless Facebook posts, and feed me when I get back from every epic. There are too many names to post, but you know who you are, and you are loved and appreciated.