“If you have too much time at the end, you haven’t slept enough.” ~Terry Hutt
We met outside the Howard Johnson’s Hotel in Salinas at 3:45am, 30ish sleepy cyclists with fully loaded bikes. Our drop bags were handed off for delivery to our overnight stop in San Luis Obispo, and we listened with bleary eyes and half-cocked ears to the ride coordinators reminding us of critical things we should keep track of during the ride. We were about to pedal our bikes 374 miles down the coast to Oxnard, and we had a total of 40 hours to get there.
All too quickly it was 4:00am, and we were off. We rode as a pack leaving the hotel, and gradually spread out over the first few miles. 4am is a magical time of day when night’s quiet is just beginning to consider stirring. As we left town to pedal through farm and ranch land, I saw the vague outline of cows in a field, heard the barking of a few dogs alerting their owners that something was happening outside. My nose was aware of fields of strawberries, then fennel, then fermenting apples and grapes as we passed through agriculture areas under cover of darkness. I’m one of the slower riders, and it took about 20 miles for me to give up on keeping up with the pack.
When I could no longer see the taillights blinking in the distance and was really alone I needed to navigate rather than just following the lights in front of me. I stopped briefly to see how far I’d come and get oriented to the route, and realized that my trusty Garmin was not providing the turn-by-turn directions I’d asked for. I checked it out and discovered that somehow I’d managed to turn off the directions rather than programming the unit to run them, so I took a few seconds to fix it before getting back underway…just in time for the turn I would have missed if I’d not stopped. I have an angel who looks out for me on the road, and I said a grateful “thank you” for the urge to stop before I found myself lost in the vastness of California’s Central Valley in the very early morning.
I caught up with another rider who introduced himself as Jorge, and we rode together in silence for a while before he dropped back to be in his own space and I pedaled on.
I was steadily climbing and the temperature was dropping rapidly as the light shifted to the twilight just before dawn. I was greeted by rolling hills of pristine ranchland, interspersed with vineyards. Fog filled the valleys, and the road was moist with dew. At about mile 47 I came upon a rider I’d lost to the pack hours before. She was pushing her bike up the hill, looking miserable. She was freezing cold, and her legs were cramping. She refused my offer of extra layers, and I gradually put them on myself as we stood on the side of the road. I talked her into taking some electrolytes, but it was too late to avoid the sudden seizing of the muscles of both of her thighs. It is a very disconcerting and helpless feeling to stand by while your friend rolls on the ground, grabbing her legs and screaming in pain while unable to stretch enough to release multiple cramps. I waited it out with her, impotently watching the minutes tick by, until the calcium and sodium took effect and she was gradually able to move. Together we walked our bikes up the hill, stopping as the cramps came and went, until she was finally able to get a leg over her bike and continue to ride. It was with relief that we reached the first control with about 15 minutes left on the clock. My 90 minute time advantage had evaporated, and I was frustrated but hopeful we could make up the time. We refilled our water bottles, had a snack, and pressed onward.
The descent into the Carmel Valley was one of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever ridden. It was low traffic, with rolling hills dotted with cows and vineyards. There was still a bit of fog in the deeper valleys, the air was warming, the sky an azure to rival the seas of the Greek Isles. We pedaled along enjoying the morning, as my companion’s legs gradually felt better.
In Carmel, we ate more and enjoyed some real porcelain. I texted my husband to let him know I was alive, feeling fine, and about to head down the coast along Rt.1, then we headed out.
Route 1 down the Central Coast is a stunning road. It twists and curves, climbs and descends following the rugged coastline. At times we were at the level of the water, at times 500 feet above the sea. The sound and smell of the ocean was our companion, with the deep lushness of the Los Padres National Forrest on the other side of the road adding a twang of conifer to the air. There were several festivals happening this holiday weekend, and every camp ground was full to capacity. Traffic was a constant hum, with a steady stream of vehicles jockeying for position on the road and in limited parking spaces at overlooks. Paying close attention to the curves of the road and the traffic took tremendous concentration and energy, and we stopped regularly for a few seconds at a time to catch our breath and take photos.
The redwoods of Big Sur towered over the road, giants of the forest watching over all who dared to pass. We stopped for a coffee to soak up their grandeur for a few moments before continuing south.
I loved watching the light change as the afternoon shadows grew and the sun dipped low on the horizon. There is something nearly ethereal about travelling at the speed of a bike with no roof above and a clear view to the sky as afternoon becomes evening and then fades into night. We were somewhere near Santa Lucia when the sun finally dropped below the ocean and the sapphire sky became streaked with reds and pinks. We reached Gordo shortly after dark, stopping to put on warmer clothes and reflective gear, and had another snack before continuing south.
The curves and traffic which required focus during the day were downright nerve wracking after dark. I have a great headlight on my bike, but it only illuminates the road in front of me. On hairpin curves, the light shines into the bushes straight ahead rather than on the road around the curve. I slowed down to a painful crawl, and my companion lost patience with my pace and went on ahead. I became lost in the rhythm of climbing and descending, following the curve of the road being careful not to go too close to the edge, the penalty for error a 600 foot drop to the sea. In the darkness cars were obvious as they came up behind, and I hoped they could see me as clearly as I could see them. The stars were sharp diamond points in the sky, thousands of them visible above the expanse of the Pacific Ocean.
A truck passed me, pulled ahead, and stopped on the shoulder. I rode by, wondering what the driver was stopping for. It pulled out, passed me again, and again pulled onto the shoulder a little bit ahead. The hairs on the back on my neck stood up as I passed the truck for the second time. Again, he pulled out, passed me, then stopped on the shoulder ahead. Suddenly, I was truly afraid. I was 50 miles from anywhere and had had no cell phone service for hours. There were other cars on the road but most people were safe around their campfires or in their hotel bars by this time of night. Was this someone having car trouble and pulling up coincidentally? Was it a would-be rapist or killer who wasn’t sure in the darkness if that lone cyclist was a man or woman and assessing whether it was worth the risk? I was shaking inside as I passed the vehicle for the third time without incident. If I dropped the bike, could I manage to outrun a man with intention to do me harm? I was tired from 18 hours of riding, wearing biking shoes with cleats, didn’t know the area, had a substantial drop on one side, and was wearing enough reflective gear to be lit up like a Christmas tree if any light hit my body. If I disappeared it would be hours before anyone realized I was gone, probably too late to matter. Twice more we played this game of cat and mouse before the driver finally took off into the darkness for good. I said a shaky “thank you” to my angel and continued pedaling.
Finally the road started to level out and I could begin to relax. I was hungry, my nerves were shot, my friend was nowhere in sight, and I needed a break. I got off the bike and sat down on the side of the road, letting the tears come. After a few minutes, I was able to eat a bit and get back underway. San Luis Obispo would not get any closer while I sat on the road and contemplated how close I may or may not have been to disaster, and I was safe enough for now. The ocean was closer to me, and I could hear elephant seals sighing in the distance as a huge moon rose over the hills outside of San Simeon. Eventually I caught up with my friend and we stopped to put on another layer as the temperature dropped. We passed the Hearst Castle, and kept going. We reached Cambria around midnight. I was exhausted, so we stopped for another coffee and a real bathroom. I gulped the cup of warm, sweet, caffeinated gas-station elixir, sat down beside my bike, and closed my eyes for a 10 minute power-nap. By the time we were moving again, the caffeine had kicked in and I was feeling better. I kept nibbling on honey chews and the potatoes in my bag, chatting with my friend to keep us both alert.
Another driver passed us and pulled into the lane ahead, this one waving us down. It was the friendly face of Terry, one of our SAG supporters. He’d missed us while we napped in Cambria, and wanted to be sure we were OK. He let us know we were only about 10 minutes behind another rider, and wished us well. For the next 30 miles into SLO, Terry was our companion on the road. He would drive ahead and then re-appear after a while, checking up on us and making sure we didn’t miss any turns in the darkness. As we got further down the coast the fog rolled in, obscuring the stars and the moon, blanketing us in the quiet of the space between midnight and early morning. The road through Los Osos was isolated, traffic-less, and rolling through a peaceful valley. Terry followed behind us along part of this stretch, playing the Eagles on his car stereo to penetrate the silence of the night. We heard night birds calling as they found their meals, an owl, perhaps a mocking bird.
Finally we arrived at our overnight control, the home of Vicki and Lance in SLO. We had expected to be there by 1:00, but it was now 2:55am. I turned off my lights and navigation, and went into the bright warmth of the garage. Several sleeping riders were stirring and Vicki was slinging pancakes on a portable griddle. I sent a quick text to my husband, had a bowl of Vicki’s wonderful homemade chicken noodle soup, a serving of mac & cheese, and a bit of veggie lasagna, then went inside to do a quick clean-up and power nap. They woke me at 4:00, and we were riding away from the friendly warmth and light by 4:10. My Garmin had refused to turn back on, so I was back to old-fashioned navigation with my trusty CatEye computer and a route sheet. The CatEye was not perfectly synchronized with the route sheet, and the math required to know when the next turn was coming helped to keep me awake and focused.
Hal joined us as we left SLO. He was attempting his first 600k, and his girlfriend, Nichole, was driving one of the support vehicles. He was tired, sore, and in good spirits as we pedaled towards Lompoc. We had 151 miles to go to finish the ride, and the deadline was 8:00pm. We were all determined to get it done.
Not long out of SLO, my friend started weaving all over the road. Mental confusion and lack of coordination are signs of low sodium, so I made her stop to eat some salt. She commented that she had not slept at the last stop, and may need to take a quick nap if this continued. She kept weaving, saying she was having trouble keeping a straight line. Finally, we stopped at a fire station and she laid down on the pavement for a nap. 10 minutes, and she was not feeling better. I gave her No-Doze, and she napped for another 20 minutes while Hal and I shivered in the early morning mist. I tried my Garmin again and it actually turned on, restoring my turn-by-turn navigation. We finally pressed on as the sun came up, all of us certain that we could no longer make it to Lompoc before the control closed at 9:44am.
The mood was tense as we pushed the pace as hard as we could through Guadalupe and Santa Maria, both of them dropping me as we raced into the foggy morning. The entire town of Santa Maria smelled like green peppers, making me long for a breakfast burrito. We made the turn onto Harrison Grade, the final press into Lompoc. I caught up with Hal who had stopped because his legs were twitching. He was digging out electrolytes as I passed. The third member of our band of randonneurs was a bit further up the road pushing her bike, legs threatening to cramp again. Finally, I was feeling good. I knew I would either just make or just miss the control if I didn’t stop and was able to keep pushing my pace, and I told her I was going to keep going. She had Hal for company or emergency back-up if her legs seized up like the day before, and I still had a chance at an official finish.
All the hill training I’ve done for the past year kicked in and I kept a strong, steady, spinning pace up the mountain. 400 feet, 500 feet, 650 feet, 800 feet, finally the grade
leveled off at 950 feet, and I was able to start the final descent. The views into the valley were spectacular as I flew down the grade, throwing my loaded bike into well graded curves on a freshly paved road. I saw the outskirts of town, then the final traffic light. I pulled into the 7-11 parking lot in Lompoc at 9:42, with 2 minutes to spare. There were three other riders there to greet me and one offered me his spare receipt and the companionship of continuing with them. I grabbed an ice cream bar and some water, realized I had no way to contact the riders I’d left on that last hill, and made the decision to continue anyway. They’d figure it out eventually, and our best bet for any of us to finish officially was for me to get to Santa Barbara – 40 more miles, with a maximum of four hours to get there. I peeled out of the parking lot with a half-capped water bottle, electrolytes in my mouth, and an unwrapped ice cream in one hand, chasing down the guys to stick with them.
For the next 40 miles I played Leap Frog with Jorge, Dzung, and Fred. We worked our way up the final big climb out of Lompac, a soul sucking slog into a head wind. Nicole had parked her van on the side of the road and left keys where we could find them. We all took a moment to refill water bottles, grab a quick snack, and strip off extra layers before taking off into the sunny morning. Eventually, Nicole stopped to ask my name and she was able to let the riders I’d left know that I was safely up ahead. They had been frantic with worry that I may have met my end on the descent into Lompoc and were furious with me for pressing on, anger fueling my friend’s determination to push her pace and catch up with me.
For hours, my bike had been making a tapping noise as my left pedal descended. I had originally thought it was just my pedal hitting against my hand pump mounted close by, but as the morning wore on the noise got more insistent and wiggling the pump had no effect. I realized that I wasn’t actually catching the pump at the time of the sound and it must be my bottom bracket or crank making the noise. The bike also wasn’t shifting well, grinding between the big and little chain ring and skipping gears. I said a quick prayer to my angel to keep Mags in one piece for another 65 miles, and begged the bike to cooperate. The four of us raced down the shoulder of highway 101 on a screaming descent into Gaviotta, followed by a seemingly endless series of rollers into Santa Barbara. The tapping was driving me nuts on the uphills, and I looked forward to the quiet of the downhill sections. I was getting tired, and the growing pain in my sit-bones was becoming harder to ignore. It was painful to sit on my seat, but my legs were too fatigued to pedal standing for long and I was afraid to stress the bottom bracket with the extra force. We made it to Santa Barbara with nearly 30 minutes in the bank, and took a few extra minutes at the control to chat with Nicole, have a snack, and for me to have another shot at a private toilet. Nicole offered a topical anesthetic for my aching rear, and I opted to try it. With 50 miles to go, the saddle sores were not enough for me to bail out on the ride and I had nothing to lose except the pain. My friend caught up to us as we were leaving the control, and pressed on to chew me out rather than stopping to refill water.
We had the inevitable discussion which happens when two very tired girls have been irritated with each other for hours, one with worry and the other with frustration. It took about 30 minutes for relative peace to be restored, and by then we had pretty much lost the guys I’d been with. She knew Santa Barbara well, and we made good time even with a stop for her to use the bathroom and refill her water bottles. Hal had been struggling on the way into Lompoc but he caught up with us on the outskirts of SB. With less than 50 miles to go, he was seeing the possibility of a successful finish and was becoming excited again. We made a few quick stops for food and snacks, and Nicole pulled out her bike and joined us for the cruise down the newly made protected bike lane along the 101 into Ventura. The sun dipped towards the ocean, the waves were close enough for us to almost feel their spray, surfers played in the late afternoon surge, and the temperature dropped to a pleasant 70ish degrees. We were able to simply enjoy the wind in our faces and the salty air, protected from the cars by a chest-high barrier. The miles melted by as the sun disappeared. We stopped to turn on lights and put on our reflectors for the last time, only 10 miles to go until our final destination. My friend was exhausted, and struggled more as darkness descended on the edges of Ventura. Hal savored the moments of his impending victory while I reflected on how this 600 had been different from my last one, enjoying the relative freedom from the pain in my nether regions and the smells coming from the myriad Mexican grocery stores and bakeries as we approached Oxnard.
Finally, we reached the Best Western, the end of our road. It was 7:10pm, and our finish was official with 50 minutes left on the clock. Our brevet cards received their final signatures, our lights were turned off. The guys I’d been riding with earlier in the day pulled in just behind us, and there were high-fives all around. It was a first 600 for Hal, Dzung, and Jorge, a job well done. Everyone was dirty, ragged, exhausted, and elated. It was time for a well deserved shower, dinner, and a LONG nap!
Every 600k ride is different, and no matter how strong a rider you are, deal-breaking issues can arise. These rides are a physical and mental challenge, and there is a ton of equipment which needs to function for a successful finish. I’ve learned to carry more than I need, double up on critical stuff, and expect periods of mental duress at some point during the event. I have no idea if I was really in danger of anything more than riding off a cliff in the dark or being run over during that dark and scary game of tag with a white truck. Imagination is a powerful thing, and there is little to keep it from running amok when you’ve been pedaling for 18 hours and your nerves are already shot. I’m relieved that the situation never escalated into something ugly, and have put some time into thinking about how to reduce my risk in situations like that one. Perhaps bear repellent would buy me time.
I sent a one word text to my husband from SLO, then dropped out of communication until Santa Barbara. My friend was not the only one who was frantic about my safety, and I felt horrible when I realized that I had left him sleepless and nearly sick with worry. I was racing the clock and consumed with making time cut-offs on schedule and didn’t even think to pull my phone out once I’d made the decision to press on as fast as possible. There are applications for the cell phone which track where the phone is, and I’ll be looking into setting one up before my next ride so at least he can see I’m in motion in the right relative area if I haven’t checked in. He greeted me in with a beautiful beer and a hug when I got home despite the stress I’d caused him, which is just part of why I love him so much.
Last year I was nearly dead from exhaustion at the end of my 600k. This year I rode strong, felt great at the finish, and have been recovering remarkably well. My bike went immediately into the shop. The bearings were OK in the bottom bracket, but everything was loose and dirty after riding through agricultural country in the wet fog. The bottom bracket was repacked, and the rear derailleur cable was replaced along with part of the housing. The shifting issues were not my imagination, and I was lucky that all the pieces stayed together long enough for me to finish the ride. I’m well equipped to handle many mechanical issues in the field, but this would have been beyond what I could fix without a ride to a bike shop.
Two messages have been sticking in my head since I got back into the “real world”. Terry, the angel in the Prius who lit the way into SLO and had Greek yogurt waiting for me at his manned control said “If you have too much time left at the end, you haven’t slept enough”. And Nicole, a woman with an impressive ultradistance resume who shares my plight of being too fast for some riders but too slow to keep up with most, reminded me to “ride your own ride” and not to worry so much about offending the people I’m riding with. I’m looking forward to seeing more of her on the road, and may have to make a point of riding in her neighborhood more next year.
Many thanks to Willie Hunt who transported our bikes to the start and organized a fantastic event, Terry Hutt and Nicole Honda who refilled water with a smile and were friendly faces on the road, Vicki and Lance in SLO who extended the hospitality of their home including a hot meal and a cozy place to nap, my husband for his never ending support, and my angel who once again watched over me in the face of insanity and kept me from harm’s way. I couldn’t do this stuff without you!