It's getting down to the wire. Ironman Arizona is only 7 weeks away now. I decided it was time for a weekend of "race simulation" training. I took a trip out to Borrego Springs this weekend for some good, old-fashioned desert training. In addition, the weather in San Diego was forecasted to be gray and rainy. Borrego Springs? Sunny and 70. It was a no-brainer.
Borrego Springs is nestled in the Anza-Borrego Desert, 30 miles west of the Salton Sea, south of Palm Springs, just north of Julian. It's less than 2 hours from San Diego and since there are no major highways that lead directly into this area, it's definitely off the beaten path.
Julian is one of my favorite SD day trips, a little western mountain town (4000 feet) by Mt. Cuyamaca and Mt. Laguna. I always stop for apple pie at the Julian Pie Co., the best apple pie in the world, hands-down. This trip was no exception--after wolfing down a piece, I bought an entire pie to keep me company in the hotel room after my grueling training ride and run. It was cold and rainy in Julian, as usual, and was literally hiding in a cloud at the top of the mountain, giving it a mystical feel.
Saturday morning, we all gathered for the unofficial "Borrego Springs Century" I had mapped out. I was sort of nervous. 100 miles in the desert in the middle of nowhere--no aid stations, no support. I was unfamiliar with the area and the terrain and had dragged some buddies out to suffer with me. Not only did I have doubts about getting myself through the ride, but I was also nervous about getting everyone else through it safely as well. I kept my fears to myself, resolved myself to the ride, and we set out.
Pre-ride pic: Denise, Brent, Rachel, Desi, Eme, & John (left to right)
We set out at a conservative pace, heading to the Salton Sea. The air was dry, and the sun was out. I was able to ditch my arm and leg warmers for the first time all year. It felt wonderful. There was no wind to speak of, and the roads were open, flat, and wide.
The first 30 miles felt like a breeze. I was soft-pedaling at 20-25 mph. I knew we were either going downhill or had a tailwind. I prayed for the former, fearing the return. The desert stretched out on all sides to the horizon. Even after all the rainfall, I found the stark barrenness of the desert landscape intimidating. The desert was as green as it gets--small patches of brown-green grass; peppered with happy cacti. I relished in the tiny purple, white, and yellow wildflowers sparsely dotting the reddish dirt, thriving after such a wet winter.
Anza Borrego Desert
The enormous expanse of the blue sky enveloped us like a dome. I could feel the intense sunlight browning my skin, piercing easily through the thin air. I was thankful for my SPF 50 sunblock and sunglasses. Even though it was only 70 degrees, the sunlight felt hotter since the desert offered no shelter or respite from the sun's rays. I sipped eagerly from my aero bottle; I had been thirsty since arriving in Borrego last night; the arid climate sucking moisture from my skin, leaching it from my body. Unfortunately, I had mixed my sports drink at way too high a concentration and was getting big chunks of it in my water. This did not bode well.
We reached the first stop at mile 30 uneventfully at a conveniently-placed gas station in Salton City. I resisted the urge to down a few burritos at a stand outside the gas station. Not wise with a finicky stomach. After a brief potty break, we continued the final 2 miles to the banks of the Salton Sea. As we rode down from Borrego Springs, we could see the enormous body of water approaching from the distance. I could smell it before we reached it; the pungent odor of salt and sulfur burned my nostrils. It looked like we had stepped onto the sands of Dubai--the body of water stretched ominously for miles but the surrounding banks were completely barren and desolate. It literally looks like a dead sea. However, I did note the large numbers of birds floating on the water's surface and flying happily through the air.
John, Denise, me, and Brent stopping briefly at the Salton Sea
(Thanks Desi for taking the pic!)
Note on Salton Sea History:
Located 220 feet below sea level, the Salton Sea is the largest lake in California (376 square miles). The Salton Sea was an accidental man-made creation during the early 1900s from an irrigation disaster when mismanagement of irrigation routes from the Colorado River resulted in flooding for 2 years into what is now the Salton Sea. The Salton Sea disaster was a major impetus behind the multiple dams on the Colorado River, including the Hoover Dam. Run-off from agriculture continues to sustain the Salton Sea today. The Salton Sea is also considered a bird's paradise. Over 400 different species of birds have been documented, and 30% of the remaining population of American White Pelican live there. The rising salinity of the Salton Sea (due to run-off) threatens the eco-system of fish and birds that currently thrive there.
We continued on our way, riding back towards Borrego. A mild wind blew from the north (sidewind); however, the next 30 miles were a gradual climb, sharply reminding me that, no, it is not normal for me to soft-pedal at 23 mph for 30 miles. I ate my humble pie and toiled onward. Give me a steep grade any day; I prefer it over the demoralizing false flats that take stabs at your pride for endless miles. I looked back at Denise and John. "We're going uphill, right?"
"No, it's normal to be struggling to maintain a 13 mph pace," John replied.
This made me feel better. Ah, the benefits of company. Why is suffering together so much more bearable than suffering alone?
The road became bumpy. Very bumpy. I couldn't feel my arms; they were vibrating so hard. I looked down in disbelief. I couldn't see the jackhammer in my hands. I couldn't even believe my arms were still attached to my shoulders. I slowed down in agony. Even through Torch's sleek carbon frame, the bumps in the road still reverberated through my body like torturous, mini-seizures. Brent lost his sponge from his aero bottle and 2 gel packs. Down the road, a water bottle leaped out of his jersey. The rough road was relentless! The desert heat had done a number on the asphalt; it was lined with bumps and cracks like large scales from the repetitious expanding and cooling experienced over the multiple extreme temperature fluctuations offered by desert weather. I can't believe how much a difference a smooth road makes.
By the time we had all climbed back to Borrego and weathered the endlessly bumpy road, we were exhausted. The 2nd "aid station" (gas station) at mile 65 was a much-needed desert oasis. Plus, after a too-concentrated sports drink in conjunction with BUMPS for 60 miles, my stomach had begun to launch a mini rebellion. I quickly downed a ton of straight, pure water at the gas station, thinning out the salt and carbs sloshing in my gut. I then thinned out my solutions. From there on out, I had 1 bottle of pure water, 1 bottle of diluted sports drink, and 1 bottle of the more concentrated form. I avoided the concentrated one as if it were poison. This worked wonders. I couldn't believe how much better I felt just by drinking straight water. This was a very valuable lesson learned. Water. It's an amazing new sports drink I've discovered. It's called WATER!!! I'm thinking of naming it H2O and taking out a patent. I think it's going to make me rich. I wonder if it's an illegal substance.
After copious amounts of water, a chicken salad sandwich and a Drumstick (a heavenly vanilla ice cream cone with a caramel center and covered in chocolate and peanuts; it called to me---mmmmmm!), I felt right as rain. We were on our way again for the final 35 miles. I couldn't believe how much better I felt! The roads were still rough but the hard part was over, and we only had 35 to go. Only problem was my ass was really beginning to hurt. How many saddles do I need to go through before finding the right one when training for an Ironman? Is this a trick question? I was joking with my friends on the ride, "I experience burning when I urinate. Either I need a new seat, or I have gonorrhea."
"Let's hope it's the former!" Denise replied.
A cute girl on a gorgeous Guru rode up with 2 other guys and asked, "Are you Rachel?" Turned out to be Shannon, from Blog Land! It was very surreal. What are the odds of running into someone who knows you in the middle of nowhere? Talk about random! The three of them joined our group, and we chatted easily. All of us were training for IM-AZ, and Shannon is also in research and from TCSD so we had tons in common. The dynamics of the entire ride were changed, injected with tons of positive energy. The miles flew by. It was magic--pure and simple.
As we neared Hwy 78, a sharp climb rose up before us. A road sign warned truckers of the 10% grade. 10%? Alright! I fought my way up the steep but short climb and whipped out a Twix bar at the top.
"I deserve a Twix after that!" I shouted triumphantly. How could I be so hungry again? Amazingly, I felt good. My stomach had settled down, and I was eating and drinking well. Oddly enough, the mix of some hills at mile 80 seemed to energize me. Guess I needed a little 10% climb to wake me up.
At the top of one of the climbs.
We wound our way back into town. When we reached the hotel, my computer read 98.2 miles. Oh, no. We were going to keep going until it rolled over to 3 digits. I continued down the road a mile before turning around, shouting out the distance every 0.2 miles. I hollered and hooted when the computer read 100. We made it! The hotel hot tub felt sooooo good and well-deserved. We definitely earned it!
That night, we ate at Carlee's, a local little bar and grill in town. It's the happening place to be in Borrego Springs. I scarfed down a tender steak and baked potato, chasing it with some delicious mud pie. Meanwhile, patrons took turns doing karaoke to songs before my time. We were definitely the youngest group in the joint. Everyone was ultra friendly, and we had a lot of fun. You can't find places with this much character just anywhere.
I could see every star that night in Borrego Spring's giant sky, glittering ostentatiously against the wispy milky way galaxy. The waning moon, just recently full, was large and orange in the eastern sky, slightly lopsided as if air was slowly leaking out of it. I was awakened from my deep slumber that night twice by coyotes. At first, I thought it was a gang of teenagers having a party in the desert. Hooligans. After listening a bit more closely to the hoots and hollers, I heard distinct yelps, yips, and long, drawn-out howls. It sounded as if the entire desert was teeming with packs of coyotes. Their howls sent eerie shivers down my spine.
The next morning, I slowly tied my running shoes to my feet and dragged myself out the door. I didn't really feel like running, much less 20 miles in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, Brent had agreed to run the first 14 with me and helped get that first foot in front of the other. That was all I needed.
I had mild GI distress for the first few miles and eagerly utilized a roadside Port-a-Potty and gas station before heading out of town. Luckily, my stomach calmed down a bit after that.
The weather changed frequently during the few hours we ran. It started cool and misty--almost humid. Large, dark thunderheads rolled in. I was certain it was going to rain. It had rained the night before; the roads were cool and wet. I almost stepped on a large, fat toad at mile 3. I stopped, scooped him up in my hands, and placed him carefully on the side of the road before continuing on my way. I didn't want him to become roadkill!
At mile 8, the clouds disappeared, and the sun came out. Without any wind, the blazing sun beat down on us. I gulped water from my FuelBelt. At mile 11, the winds picked up. A gusty tailwind pushed me forward. I felt like my feet had wings. I soared down the road. A nagging thought in the back of my head reminded me that it was going to be difficult.
I passed the hotel at mile 14. Brent headed in, and I continued onward. 6 more miles to go. 3 out, 3 back. I had a good rhythm and didn't question it. Mile 14 to 15 went easily. I had a tailwind at my back and good tunes in my ears. Mile 15-17 were agonizing. The road turned and the tailwind became a sidewind. I fought to prevent myself from being pushed into the middle of the road where pickup trucks roared by. My feet hurt. My hips hurt. And I was out of water. I kept glancing at my watch. I focused on the turn-around at mile 17. That was the only thing on my mind. Each minute elapsed at an agonizingly slow pace. I forbid myself to look at my watch, trying not to focus on the pain, second by second. I played little games with myself. I found a landmark in the distance and focused on reaching that point. At the tree, I can look at my watch. At the road sign, I can look at my watch. The fence post. The stick in the road. Every minute, I found a new object. My goal was to reach it. Amazingly, this tactic worked. All of a sudden, I had reached mile 17. I could turn around! In disbelief at having reached this point, I turned around and made my way back.
The gusty headwind hit me full-force like being punched in the stomach. I fought to move my legs forward, leaning against the wind like pushing against a brick wall. It was almost comical. Almost. I found a good song, turned up the volume and kept on running. It didn't matter how slowly I was going. All that mattered was that I kept going. One foot in front of the other. I thought about quitting. I thought about walking. But if I started walking, I knew I wouldn't be able to start running again. And I wanted to get this over with. There was only one way back, and it was on foot. Just me, my feet, and the road.
At mile 18.5, I started feeling good. There was still a headwind but my feet regained their rhythm, and I was floating down the road again. When you start to feel good after mile 18, you start to feel really good. Because, dammit, I've run 18 miles! And I feel good? That just made me feel awesome. I let the snowball effect carry me. I picked up the pace.
At mile 19, my right hip locked up. Searing pain knifed through my right hip, shooting down my leg. I limped along. You got to be kidding me? Just when I'm feeling good? I walked for a few paces, unable to continue running; the pain was so bad. A car passed; one of the few vehicles out there, and it had to pass just at that low point, windows down, heads turned, mouths agape. I ignored them and tried shuffling. That worked. I tried jogging. Still okay. I fell into a run again a bit more conservatively this time. C'mon. Only a mile. You can do this. The pain in my hip was still there but it had ebbed to a dull ache. I still am not sure what locked up at mile 19. All I know is that it was deep and searing. Nerve pain? Not sure. Didn't care. I was still running. I saw the hotel in the distance. I was going to make it. I felt elated.
Even after turning into the hotel, I kept running. I had started to feel good again. It's amazing all the highs and lows I feel on a long run. Luckily, I've been ending on a good note. Only thing I've noticed is that it's really hard to walk after running for such a hard time. I wanted to stop running once I reached the hotel parking lot. But it wasn't easy. My body couldn't seem to remember how. I felt stuck in drive. I had to slowly shift to a jog. Then a shuffle. The first few steps of walking were agonizing. I limped slowly to the room. A few hours later, walking was still painful. So was putting on shoes. Thank God for Ibuprofen. It's a miracle drug.
Amazingly, after my 100 mile bike on Saturday and 20 mile run on Sunday, I feel pretty good today (Monday). Not too sore, and only a little tired. However, I'm looking forward to my massage tonight. Today is an "off" day. And thank God it's a recovery week!
(Thanks to Brent for all the pics!)