Monday, July 27, 2009

Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge

This weekend, Brent and I made the 8-hour drive north to Santa Cruz for the Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge, a 105-mile bike ride with 11,000 feet of climbing. This was to be my big, "final push" bike ride for Ironman Canada training. (I only have 1 more week of training left before I start to taper (gulp)). This was one of those workouts that made me shiver. I wasn't sure I could even climb 11,000 feet without falling off my bike. Plus, there were rumors that the grades were steep, like 18%+. Could I even do this?

--elevation profile

We headed out in the damp, early morning fog. It was kind of cold. I had brought my light cycling jacket in anticipation. Right off the bat, we started climbing up Mt. Charlie. These weren't hills; they were mountains. I always thought San Diego was hilly but Santa Cruz puts a whole other perspective on hills, er, mountains. San Diego is only rollers compared to up there!

--climbing up the first hill, jacket already unzipped--

The roads were damp from the fog, which dripped on my helmet from the massive redwoods towering above. They were so gorgeous. Thankfully, the redwood forest provided cool shade (actually, almost complete darkness) on what could have been an extremely hot ride in late July. I warmed up right away as we climbed and quickly shed my jacket. I was scarfing down all my bars as we climbed. Climbing makes me SO hungry!

Then, we began descending, and I was instantly freezing. The downward grades were so steep, it almost took all the fun out of it. I used 100% of my focus and concentration to balance and steer around the sharp switchbacks, consciously shifting my weight on the back wheel to prevent the bike from flipping over forwards. The darkness of the redwoods made it particularly difficult to see, making me very nervous. I peered in vain, searching for broken pavement or gravel or some other treacherous obstacle that threatened a wipe-out at 35+ mph. Just what I need in the final weeks before my big race. I was very lucky. Pandora (my Look 585 Elle) loved it, however. She corners excellently, and I enjoyed practicing my descending skills. Tap the back brake, right knee up, left leg down, lean the bike to the right, straighten, left knee up, right leg down, lean the bike left, wheeeeeeee! I've decided adrenaline is thinking you're going to die (like on a steep, windy descent) and then actually surviving instead. The downhills ended up being a lot of fun. At least at first, when I was fresh. Not so much later on.

--riding into the darkness of the forest

Then, we began climbing again. It was like this all day. Climb, climb, climb until you can't stand it. Then, oh, thank, God, hallelujah, down, down, down, until, dammit, when can I stop praying for my life on this steep descent and freezing my ass off? Then, up, up, up until I'm hot and sweaty and exhausted and can't stand it. Then, down, down, down. And repeat. Over and over.

China Grade was so impossibly steep. The road was broken and roots of the redwoods were peeking out from below the pavement. Not only did I have to concentrate on turning each pedal over with great force, I also had to focus on where to steer the bike so as not to wipe out in a pot hole. Every little bump makes a big difference when you're only going 3 mph. I had to climb out of the saddle for what seemed like miles. Pitches of the road were so steep, I thought I was going to topple over backwards. In anticipation, I tried to accelerate and gain momentum to carry me up the grade. Somehow, I did but I'm not sure how. My upper body was aching too. I couldn't believe how much upper body strength was required to climb. I tried to sit and recover for a stretch. Pandora kept rearing up in protest. Yes, my front wheel was coming off the ground. Since I really didn't want to do a wheelie up the mountain, I just stood up and climbed out of the saddle after that. That was not so fun.

When we reached the top, we looked over the tops of the trees and saw the clouds beneath it. It was one of the most beautiful sights I'd ever seen. Just breathtaking. I've decided the hardest rides are also the most beautiful. This was exactly that...the hardest I've ever done. And the most beautiful. I loved the redwoods, I loved the oceans, the farmland, all of it. We saw mule deer (including a woman feeding the deer), darling little quail with tiny question marks bobbing on their heads as they darted across the road, and even a lone coyote, who yipped curiously at me as we rode by.

--above the clouds

--another view from the top

We began climbing Jamison Creek. It was hard and long and steep but somehow, less steep than China Grade. I was thankful I could stay seated as I climbed. Funny how my perspective had changed. A long time ago, I avoided hills all together. Then, I began climbing and they were all hard. On this ride, I began not minding hills as long as I could stay seated. Then, I didn't mind climbing out of the saddle as long as the front wheel stayed on the ground. What was next? The forest was eerily quiet, and I was momentarily alone. I heard creaking and rustling. I thought for sure it was a rider behind me. When I got the chance to look back, I realized I was alone. The forest was alive. It was spooky and awe-inspiring at the same time.

I caught up to Brent. He was suffering (I have lower gears on my bike). I was starting to feel good (call it the slow-twitch in me). We caught several other cyclists. Many were walking. I refused. I would rather fall off my bike first. I was breathing so hard I could taste blood. Totally red-lining. Going 100% at mile 30. All I could think about was the next pedal stroke. I was totally consumed by the mountain. It was a fantastic, grueling, wonderful suffering feeling. I got a total high climbing up Jamison. Other riders didn't share in my ecstatic, "That was GREAT!" at the top. They looked like they wanted to kill me instead.

--bellies full after lunch; ready to begin riding again

After a delicious lunch, we were on our way again. I was looking forward to a long descent and easy-looking flat stretch along the ocean for the next 30-miles. We hit the coast and began heading north. Instantly, we were hit with a 30 mph headwind. Dead on. I toiled onwards, trying with great effort to maintain a 12 mph pace. It was agonizing. Plus, I was greatly envious of the other riders heading back the other way, after the turn-around. I wanted that to be me. The headwind was relentless. Dammit! Give me the hills back! I'll take those instead! How about both? We began climbing up Swanton Road for a loooong way. It wasn't too steep but it was uphill for several miles. I hadn't anticipated it. The hardest climbs were over with so mentally, I just wasn't prepared for the little bumps in the road after that. I think a zit in the road would have felt like a mountain at that point. The headwind was still pushing us backwards, and I was miserable. I had hit my low point. We finallly cruised back down to the coast again, whizzing to the final rest stop with a tailwind in our sails. I was flying down the road effortlessly and all was well and good in the world again.

--cruising by the coast with a tailwind on Hwy 1

I gobbled down some chocolate muffins at the rest stop. And some strawberries, yogurt, brown sugar, trail mix, Red Vines, basically, whatever I could put in my mouth. It was unbelievable how hungry I was! Climbing makes me ravenous. We stocked up, knowing we had one last torturous climb awaiting, Bonny Doon, at mile 83. I was not looking forward to it at this point. We reached Bonny Doon and started going up. I was happy to finally be getting it over with. I found my rhythm and just zoned out and climbed and climbed and climbed.

--at one of the rest stops; not done climbing yet!

We finally reached the top, and I rejoiced. It was getting hot, and my warm Infinit was starting to come back up. Yuck. At least that was the last climb. Right? Wrong. We turned onto Smith Grade and after a brief descent, began climbing again. WTF? I didn't remember this on the map! An elderly gentleman raking leaves in his front yard assured us it wasn't too long until the next downhill. Thank God! But it was not to be. He had given us false hope. As we continued to climb, and climb, and climb, I pondered whether I should turn around and go back and slap that guy across the face. But then I would have to climb back up again. I was beyond exhausted. Somehow, I was still atop the bike. As I climbed, I realized my tongue was hanging out. I must have looked like one of those Team Saxo Bank domestique's pulling on Stage 20 of the Tour de France. Only going 15 mph slower.

We finally began the final descent into downtown Santa Cruz. At this point, I was too tired to enjoy going down. It was steep and windy and dark and treacherous. I was mentally fatigued and having a hard time coming up with the isometric strength to balance the bike on the turns. But I did it, somehow and albeit painfully. We cruised through Santa Cruz, avoiding the myriad of Saturday afternoon beach traffic. At least it was flat. And we were almost done.

--smiling in Santa Cruz by the beach; almost done!!!

We stopped to help a poor guy bonking along the levee bike path. He had a flat tire, no food, and no cell phone. He was not the easiest guy in the world to help, especially considering he really needed help. Ugh. Finally, we called SAG for him and wearily continued on our way. We had 10 miles left to go. Unbelievably, we still had one last climb out of Santa Cruz back up to Scotts Valley. As we began our final (yes, for real this time) climb to the start, SAG drove by and asked, "Do you need a ride?" We shook our heads no.
"Well, you're on your own." That was fine with us. We were only 7 miles away. Another SAG wagon drove by and stopped. The well-intended gentleman stepped out of the vehicle and shouted to us,
"I hate to interrupt you on the middle of a hill but I'm the last one by. Do you need a ride?"
"No!" we shouted.
"Okay, well we're shutting the course down."
"Okay!" we said. Fine. It's not like I've never ridden my bike without SAG before. They're not shutting the roads down, are they? I didn't NEED them! We were so close. For a second, I thought he was going to try to pull me off my bike. We both started accelerating up the hill. Watch him even try to catch me! I was tired but I'd give him a run for his money if he tried! Finally, after 10 hours of riding, we reached the parking lot. We had done it! 105 miles and 11,000 feet of climbing. Because I had always wondered what that would feel like.


RoadBunner said...

You are amazing!!!

One more week!!

Shan said...

Yeah, the hills up here are BRUTAL! China Grade is gorgeous though.

Nice work out there! Best of luck at IM Canada!!! :-D

Kevin said...

OMG That sounds seriously tough. Great job finishing such a tough ride

Cliff said...

Girl, 11,000 ft in 105 miles?

U are nuts.


Glad u guys help the guy...that was really nice

Jack said...

Wow, great report, and great job finishing a tough ride! Your hill climb experiences were giving me flashbacks from my ride on Sunday. Your definition of adrenaline fits perfectly!

Grey Beard said...

Congratulations Rachel. Quite an accomplishment.

I noticed you've made a few changes to Pandora :D I like the cut steering tube :D Much better. If you feel yourself wanting to reach farther forward when climbing, to keep your CG from getting tipped too far back, you could try a longer stem - 110 perhaps - and see how it feels.

Tipping the saddle's nose down 5-10mm for a heavy climbing route also helps, along with raising the seat 5-7mm. Long, droop-nosed saddles are made for climbing specialists. Selle makes the best one's I know of.

Just a reminder, lots of climbing can slow you down, so keep up with the excellent sprints, rollers and intervals. Best of luck on IM Canada. Time to have a little faith and taper? Rest is best.

Really proud of you for this one. Very impressive.

Leah said...

Whoa. Nice! That's a lot of climbing. You're going to be so ready for IM.

(Ha! The word verification blogger asked me for here is 'nowrace.' I think that's a good omen for you!)

Diana said...

Wow, what a ride! Love how it changed from ok to scary and back over and over-that's the best part of a long ride. All the worries throughout and then it's over...time to party!

Krista said...

Wow. That is insane. I think my heart rate is up just reading this. I feel the same way about big hills - so painful going up and praying for your life going down.

Wes said...

That will definitely get you ready for IM Eh? :-) Great ride!!!

Anonymous said...

Just found your blog and am enjoying it. Good luck on Ironman Canada, that's one of my dreams! I blog too, about food, though triathlon training and health make frequent appearances. Cheers!

Kate said...

Wow Rachel. I am SO very impressed! Just WOW! Go smash IM Canada!