I've decided every Ironman is like a two part play: the training and the race. The training takes much longer and has less action but is the most important. It's the character building phase. The race, of course, is the plot. Keep in mind, however, that even the character building phase can be peppered with excitement. Single, traumatic, impossible workout feats that define who you are as an athlete. Those are the "breakthrough" workouts, the events that convince you that, no matter what God hands you on race day, you'll make it to the the finish line. If I hadn't had these "character building" workouts, I doubt I would have finished Ironman Arizona last April in those hellish conditions. I can remember a difficult 3-mile ocean swim from the Cove-Scripps Pier-back to the Cove that helped prepare me. And a crazy weekend in Borrego Springs (100 mile ride Saturday in the desert, followed by a 20-mile run on Sunday) that simply defined me.
Lately, I've been on fire. I've been really revving up the workouts, very focused, and I can feel the fatigue starting to challenge me during these final weeks of Ironman training before the taper. I only have 4 more weeks of training. This week will close up the final week of bike-focused training before I start my "final push." The excitement is palpable.
I've been kind of lax on posting on my epic weekend rides. Last one came close, especially when we renamed "The Spirit of TCSD Ride" the "No Mercy Ride", after I forgot to include the left-hand turn onto Mercy Road on the route slip. After hand-correcting all the route slips, we promptly missed the turn onto Mercy, adding an extra 3 miles to a 70+mile (hilly ride). By the end of the ride, after everyone was exhausted from all the climbing, it definitely was the No Mercy Ride!
This Saturday's ride was one of my defining moments that I will remember when it gets tough on the Ironman Canada course. Maybe I should have given it a more exciting name than the understated "80-mile Palomar Ride". I knew it would be hard. 7100 feet of climbing and the forecast predicted heat. This ride is included in many pro's training schedules around here and was made famous by the final stage of the Tour de California. The mountain was calling me.
I've seen many able cyclists hitch a ride home and turn back early after bonking halfway up the mountain. I had ridden the 64-mile version 3x before in cooler weather. Now, it was time to challenge myself a bit. Could I do it? Could I make it the whole way? I had my doubts, especially after feeling the fatigue creep into my legs after a tough 2-weeks of workouts.
I met the group at Kit Carson Park early Saturday morning before 7 am. The final, cool wisps of fog were clinging to the ground. We took off, heading north, and I did my best to stay in the middle of the pack. It was a great group, and we exchanged funny stories about the obsessive-compulsive habits of triathletes as we warmed up. Before we reached the first climb, the sun melted the final remnants of fog away, and the temps began to rise. The sweat began to drip like a leaky faucet down my cheeks. It was going to be one of those days.
We began climbing up Lake Wohlford, the first major climb, and the group splintered. I rode alone between the fast group and the slow group. Great practice for Ironman race day. I found my rhythm and toiled up the hill slowly but steadily on my tri bike (Torch). This ride would have been so much easier on my road bike (Pandora) but that's not who I'm riding on race day! The road snaked narrowly up and around and up and around. I clung to the shoulder, lined with broken pavement and glittering with the glass of a million broken bottles carelessly thrown from drunken gamblers driving back from the casinos or countless pickup trucks, indigenous to the area. A few large semi trucks carrying loads of dirt squeezed past me on the narrow road. They were loud and large but at least they were slow and somewhat considerate.
I finally reached the top of Lake Wohlford, and feeling fresh, cruised down the descent to try and catch the group ahead of me. Farmland surrounded me, and I drank in the scenery. Ponies and horses with shimmering summer coats grazed contentedly in the early morning sun, still pleasant and comfortable. The silver leaves of an olive tree orchard contrasted starkly against the lush, velvet green grass carpeting the lawn beneath. All of this beauty was instantly broken by the overwhelming stench of a chicken farm. I suppressed the urge not to retch as I rode by. I cruised by Valley View Casino, a huge concrete complex in the middle of nowhere. At the bottom of the giant hill lay an even more massive Harrah's Casino, in an even more desolate location, surrounded by nothing but vast, vacant brown desert. I pulled into the taco shop at the base of Palomar to regroup. We had made it over the first "speed bump".
Still in good spirits, we all headed east on Hwy 76 to the South Grade Road of Palomar. We still had 5 or 6 miles before reaching the bottom of Palomar, and the entire thing was uphill. In addition, the sun was now beating down on us with incredible intensity, and we were fully exposed with absolutely no shade to protect us. The entire time, as I crawled to the base, I stared in awe to my north. This enormous, 5,000 beast of a mountain rose up before us. I was completely intimidated.
We finally reached the South Grade Road, and I silently rejoiced. I'm not sure why. Yea! 7-miles of 7% grade up a mountain! I think I was happy to finally be officially on the mountain. Plus, there were patches of refreshing shade along the way up. We started climbing (for real now; hadn't I already been climbing the entire 25 miles before?), and I made note of what my mileage read so I could count down the miles. Even though it was only 7 miles to the top, I knew it would be over an hour before reaching the summit. Luckily, I had plenty of fluids and food. The motorcycles were out in full force. These adrenaline-junkies love to race up the narrow, windy road of Palomar, occasionally wiping out. That's all fine and dandy, as long as they don't take me or one of my friends with them. I nervously clung to the shoulder.
Halfway up, I found Brent, struggling with a flat on the shoulder. I'm surprised more of us didn't get flats. Afterall, I think we rode the entire way on broken glass. I silently celebrated. Now we would get to ride together! He was starting to look a little miserable. Of course, he was out of water, not bothering to refill at the Taco Shop at the base. I gave him a bottle, and we continued up. My right hamstring began to cry out in pain. Well, first it was my knees. Then, my feet, as the heat made them swell. Then, my stomach began to bloat and fill with nausea (my sports drink was too concentrated). Then my wrists and hands from riding in the non-rideable hoods of a tri bike for so long, slippery with sweat. Different body parts took turns complaining. Thinking the hammy pain was a cramp, I popped some salt tablets. I counted down the final mile, blocking out the pain. It crept by at an agonizingly slow rate. I, too, was out of fluids now, and had been purposely undereating to let my stomach empty. I could choose between nausea and hunger. Hunger had seemed better but now I was getting dizzy. I warned Brent not to come up beside me, in case I toppled over. At least, in that case, I wouldn't take both of us out. I saw the 5,000 foot sign and rejoiced. We were almost there. The final 200 feet took an eternity. I almost cried when I saw the top.
--view from the top
We refueled and rehydrated (club sandwich and Coke anyone?) at Mother's Kitchen, an angel of a restaurant at the top, nestled snugly in the shade. The top of Palomar was much cooler than the base, and it was actually pleasant in the shade (70s). Brent had another flat, and I helped him pry the tire off to see what the culprit was. Only after cutting my thumb did I find the invisible sliver of a metal staple wedged solidly on the inside of the tire. Eureka! It took the sacrifice of all of my fingernails and about 10-15 minutes to pull out the metal splinter. However, I was confident he wouldn't flat again. I reapplied sunblock, using some I had found. It had citronella in it, which I thought was supposed to be an insect repellent. Within seconds, 3 bees were chasing me around the summit. I was squealing and circling and gesticulating wildly like a madwoman, much to the entertained curiousity of several onlookers. Red-faced from the sun and embarrassment, Brent and I climbed back on our beasts of burden and headed down the East Grade. The rest of the group, wary of the heat and time, went back down the much steeper South Grade, which would get them back to the car in a total of 64-miles. Obstinately, I continued on my foreplanned 80-mile route.
We descended, and it was oh-so-blissfully sweet to spin and sit and cruise at 34 mph. About halfway down the mountain, 5 fire engines screamed past. Uh oh. Shortly after, we were stopped by a crew of firemen. A line of cars and cyclists sat and waited. A Ferrari racing up the East Grade had overheated and caught on fire. It was going to be awhile, we were warned. Climbing back up the mountain to go down the South Grade was out of the question. Recognizing some of my buddies on bikes, we snuggled in a scant patch of shade on the side of the mountain, ignoring the fire ants and prickly oak leaves biting into our asses. The heat was beginning to get to me, and my temper began to flare. After sassing off to the Fire Captain, an old geezer on a motorcycle came over to tell me what I big mouth I had. I glared at him and told him it was hot. He told me it was 93 degrees, and that it was perfect, and that I was a complainer.
"Guess I should have brought a sweater!" I exclaimed.
"This one's got a mouth on her!" he retorted. There was a lot more I wanted to shout back at him but I knew it would be a waste of precious energy; energy I needed to get home. I rembered Life Lesson #2: Don't Argue With Idiots, and bit my tongue. He kept on prodding me with mild insults. I looked at him with the biggest smile I could muster and dripping with sarcasm, shouted, "This is the best day ever!"
Luckily, the fire was put out quickly, and the cyclists were given a headstart down the mountain. Around the next bend lay the corpse of what had been a Ferrari. In it's place lay a pile of smoking, melted metal. Huh. Guess it really had caught on fire. But it's not hot or anything.
We reached the bottom and headed west on Hwy 76. The road was narrow, cars whizzed past, and the shoulder was unrideable. Hmmm, is this a theme? It was now 1:30 pm and unbearably hot. The sun was beating down on us relentlessly, and there was no shade. If there had been shade, I would have gotten off and laid in it. I began wondering if I could make it. My quit-o-meter was at an all-time high. But how would I feel if I quit? What would I do on race day if it got tough? I had ridden all this way. I couldn't quit now. I had to make it back. I didn't care how long it took. We passed the Taco Shop in silence, refusing to stop. Both of us knew if we stopped, we would try to bum a ride. I was on a mission. I wanted to make it back.
We turned by the giant casino and began the final, yet hardest climb back up to Valley Center. The casino climb--since it goes between 2 casinos--was the hardest part of the ride. It's hot, it's long, and I was beat up from all the other climbs (um, Palomar?). My right hamstring was now crying for mercy, and I realized I might have strained it. I found I could maintain a rhythm if I focused on exerting more force with my left pedal stroke but the ascents were particularly tough. We climbed up and up and up on a narrow, windy road with no shoulder as cars whizzed by. Ugh. We passed countless crosses decorated with dead flowers on the side of the road where other motorists and presumably cyclists had lost their lives. Not a good omen.
Right after the chicken-shit farm, we passed a sign with an arrow pointing left to "Hellhole Canyon." Hellhole? We were actually near some place legitimately called Hellhole? You have to be kidding me! It stuck, and the ride was christened "The Hellhole Ride." Somehow, we made it to the top of Lake Wohlford. Brent was out of water again but I refused to part with what precious little I had remaining. A fisherman took pity on us and gave us a bottle of water. Angels in disguise. We began descending back towards Escondido, and the temperature dropped a degree or two. I realized we were going to make it. I became overjoyed. We made it back to the car, and I hugged Brent. He proclaimed that the ride was completely miserable. I, however, think it was great character building.