Ride Report: Seattle to Portland

Long before I considered moving to the west coast, I had heard of Seattle to Portland (STP). The ride, considered the single biggest cycling event in the US, has a mystique about it. Perhaps it's because of its distance (204 miles) or because of the two cities that bookend the route or because it's the only cycling event that takes riders within eyesight of four different volcanoes. Whatever the reason, I don't know; I just know I always wanted to join the masses and do STP. But like most things, when they're right in your backyard you tend to downplay them. So, as the date approached I have to say that I wasn't really looking forward to it. The course is very flat, its overcrowded, and well, it also requires being on my road bike for 204 miles. Of the 9,000 riders who participate, the vast majority (6,700) do it in two days. I didn't see the point in stretching it out over a whole weekend, so I decided to join the minority and tackle the whole course in one day.

My STP began at 3:45 Saturday morning with my alarm clock going off. Kristin, perhaps sucking up to me for a nice Anniversary present, got up and made me coffee while I showered. Yes, she's clinically insane but I love her anyway. I was out the door by 4:30 and on my way to the starting line at the University of Washington in Seattle. The Interstate was filled with cars with 2, 3, and sometimes 4 bikes on the back of them. All with race numbers. After sitting in a long line of traffic at such an ungodly hour that even Starbucks wasn't open yet, I finally got suited up, dropped off my bag of clothes to be delivered to the finish line in Portland, Oregon, and made my way to the starting line.

They were releasing riders onto the course in large waves; my wave started at 5:50. The first hour was rather slow going due to the mass trepidation we all shared and because, well, it was really freaking early! This was the the most scenic part of the entire course, however. We crossed the Montlake Cut and descended down past the Seattle Arboretum and Japanese Tea Garden over to Lake Washington Blvd and cruised along the pristine lakefront road while watching the sun rise over the water. The view of the sun, the lake, and the Bellevue skyline and distant Cascade Mountains was just one more reminder of why I love living here. People came from 47 states and 4 different countries to ride STP this weekend and I bet every one of them was impressed by the sights. And we get to ride those roads every day if we want. It doesn't any get better than that. But I digress...

Thirty miles into the ride saw the first bit of drama unfold as a guy in a recumbent bike dropped his water bottle and decided to -- without warning -- bang a U-turn to get it in front of 30 cyclists occupying the entire lane. Several of us screeched to a halt and banged up against one another while trying to avoid t-boning the idiot cyclist. I missed colliding with his rear wheel by mere inches. Profanity and threats to body and property filled the air but soon we were all back into our own personal daydreams and cycling along.

Unlike in the other century rides I entered this year, I was not about to pass up an opportunity to draft at STP. 204 miles is too far to go it alone. The early pace lines that formed were rather scary due to the amount of people we were passing and because we hadn't truly separated the fast from the slow yet. As a result, I constantly found myself at the front of the line with a half-dozen people behind me sucking my wheel. I didn't mind; it was safer to be at the front and I would have plenty of time to draft later.

The course got pretty nondescript after the first 40 miles and although we got to enjoy a really nice shaded section on a paved rail-trail, it was over before long and we were back on the shoulders of roads that were too busy for my liking. At 80 miles my feet started to hurt as I was developing a couple of hot spots on my big toe on my left foot and my right Achilles tendon was getting sore. I felt great otherwise despite the heat and unusual humidity.

The course passes through Centralia Community College at mile 100 and I must say that there was enough of a party atmosphere in place to make me almost wish I was spending the night and finishing on Sunday. Before off the bike, I was handed a ceamsicle and a cup of iced coffee. I needed both. I dumped my bike in the shade and found my way over to the 1-day rider's food station. Whole Foods markets had been staffing the primary official aid stations along the course and the quality of the food (especially the organic fruit) was incredible. Everything tastes better when you're working out, but the apricots and chicken wrap sandwiches were incredible. It was also nice having Oddwalla Juice and Vitamin Water handing out plenty of their drinks as well.

The problem with all of the festivities at the 100 mile mark is that it makes it that much harder to get back on the bike and continue on. What made it even worse was that my left toe was starting to really hurt. As I commented to other riders sharing similar thoughts, 104 miles is far too long yet to ride to start having a "let's just get it over with" attitude.

Although I felt good after the big rest in Centralia, it wasn't long before my toe started hurting uncontrollably. At mile 120 I stopped at a mini rest stop (aka fundraising booth) and took off my shoes and socks to have a look. The callous on my big toe was extremely sore, but showed no signs of rupturing and there were no fresh blisters so I spread on a bunch of antiobiotic ointment just in case it tore open, and then I taped a few band-aids over it. Back onto the bike.

By now the foot was really hurting and I was starting to get tired. It was getting really hot -- almost 90 degrees -- and I was getting pretty bored. Aside from the toe pain I felt great, but the pain in the toe was starting to become excruciating. It would go away and then, ten minutes later, it would feel as if someone was putting out a cigarette on my toe. Over and over with every pedal stroke. Burn, burn, burn. I started riding with my left foot unclipped from the pedal and stretched out to the side, but that didn't make it feel much better and only served to slow everyone down around me.

We finally approached the massive bridge over the Columbia River into Oregon at mile 150 and although I enjoyed the climb up the bridge -- I made a point of really attacking every hill on the course -- I was not happy with the descent. I was coasting along at 40 mph down the Oregon side of the bridge and hit a steel plate on the sidewalk we were on really hard. One of my two water bottles became dislodged but I was able to pin it with my leg against the bike. I was really scared to let it fall for fear of what would happen to the people behind me if they hit it at that speed. So I held the water bottle with my left calf while trying to slow the bike down to a speed that I felt comfortable taking a hand off the handlebars, but the bottle eventually fell. Fortunately, there wasn't anybody directly behind me and it seemed to roll someplace out of the way. Up until the middle of the afternoon, I was stopping often enough to only have to refill one water bottle at each rest stop but we were now in the heat of the day and I was clearly starting to get dehydrated. Now more than ever I needed that second water bottle.

I eventually stopped around mile 175 and put the credit card I had in my saddle bag to use at a 7-11 to buy a large V-8 and bottle of Vitamin Water. I didn't know where the next rest stop was and since most of them required cash donations in order to get anything, there was a chance I wouldn't have been able to replace the bottle anyway. Naturally, the next rest stop was just 3 miles further and filled with tons of free food and drink care of Whole Foods. The near-frozen grapes were to die for.

The last 25 miles or so were spent riding on the shoulder of a busy urban road as we made our way into the city limits. By now everybody just wanted to be done. My toe was hurting so badly now that I was literally screaming in agony and nearly in tears. The pain was exactly as it felt when I had to have my thumb cauterized at field camp... without pain killer (I had been bitten by a black widow spider). To add insult to injury, once in the city limits, the park was nowhere to be seen. We had to follow a circuitous path up and over some hills, over a bridge, past the Rose Garden, and then, finally, we were able to hear the applause of the semi-roaring crowd at the finish line. Relief. It was over. It took a little over 11 hours of pure pedal time with an extra 90 minutes or so of time spent at rest-stops and red-lights.

I had people tell me as recently as Friday night that doing STP in one day "will be easy." I found those comments pretty funny considering most of the people I talked with hadn't ever done it themselves, but I think they, like me, were simply judging by the fact that I had ridden 201 miles on my mountain bike at the 24-hour race in May. Common sense would say that if I could ride 200 miles on a mountain bike, I could do it much easier on my road bike. I'm not going to disagree with that, but I will definitely say that doing STP in one day is not easy. It's a different kind of hard. It's a mental challenge in which you're trying to overcome bouts of complete and utter boredom all the while focusing on riding a straight line several inches off the tire in front of you and dodging cars. Your ass hurts from sitting on a hard bike seat for 11 hours and, in my case, you get a hole in your sock that results in pain the likes you hadn't ever experienced. There is also the heat, the lack of shade, and also the constant fear of what the guy next to you might do at any moment. No, doing STP in one day is definitely not easy. I'm very proud that I finished it, but also know that I wouldn't ever do it again. Maybe it's the mountain biker in me, maybe it's because of the wonderfully scenic (and car-free) roads that I get to ride near my house but I honestly see no aspects of the ride that would make me want to ever do it again, other than for the reason I did it this year -- as a well-supported training ride.

I called Kristin from the finish line -- she was at Alki Beach having a drink with friends -- and told her it was over and that I may need to have my toe amputated. She sensed that I was exaggerating (I wasn't so sure I was) but said she'd wait up for me until I got home. She's awesome. I then strolled silently through the finish line festivities over to the hotel where my bag was. It wasn't there, but I was too tired to get upset. We eventually found it in the wrong pile of luggage. Phew! I immediately took my Sidi bike shoes off and slipped into my sandals. Now I'm done. Now I feel like I can start to recover. I dropped my bike off with the moving company in charge of transporting the thousands of bicycles back to Seattle, then hit the shower truck. Shockingly they even had hot water. From there, it was across the street to Quiznos and then onto the bus for the 3.5 hour drive back to Seattle. I finally pulled into the driveway after midnight, nearly 20 hours after I left. At least I caught the first bus back to Seattle...

Portland seemed like a nice place to visit. Next time I think I'll leave the bike at home.

Note: Although I comment that I found the ride to be boring and say that I wouldn't ever do it again, this is primarily a function of the route the course takes. The Cascade Bicycle Club does an absolutely fantastic job organizing this ride and most everything about this massive event is well coordinated with an eye towards making it as convenient as possible for the cyclist. That said, I found the route to use far too many busy streets and to simply lack the scenery that I would expect from a destination-style event such as this. The Pacific Northwest has incredible scenery and I think the thousands of people who flock here to do this event would be better served by taking them off the urban streets and highways and giving them more rural scenery. Lastly, I would say that there needs to be some advance warning for first-time STP'ers to bring cash. Most of the aid stations were run by schools and clubs looking to raise money. I have no problem with that, but since I don't normally carry cash with me when I'm cycling, I was unable to refuel at many of the aid stations other than to refill water bottles. Also, I didn't expect everything at the finish line to be cash-based. To not even have any free food or drink at the finish line of such a huge event was both shocking and disappointing. Maybe my years in triathlon and mountain bike racing spoiled me, but I couldn't believe the lack of finish line food and drink.

Thanks: Special thanks, as always, to my sponsors BradyGames and Re/Max on the Ridge. Their support is going a long way towards making this an unforgettable year in my cycling carer.


Criscipline said...

Other than the tasty Whole Foods food, that sounded like hell. But as always, I'm so proud of you for being able to shrug off pain and never quit. That's quite amazing.

roadie said...

Saw your blog and have to agree completely. Did the ride in 1 day myself as well. I'm surprised you took the downside of that fun bridge going into oregon at 40mph as I was scared as hell with that narrow shoulder and the bark all over the pavement. Riding 80miles on state highways isn't my idea of a scenic ride, and I too am not sure how this became that popular. Too many beautiful rides in the NW to repeat this one again...but I can say I was a one day rider now so i don't have to!

Maarten said...

Congrats on making it! I think getting through the long day is harder if you're completely on your own than if you're with a small bunch of people you know. Small bits of social interaction and shared experience go a long way, at least for me.

Yeah, you don't do STP for the route... definitely not a second time. After the first time, I only did it as training for RAMROD.

It's just amazing to me that 2300 people do it in one day now. Five years ago, it was 1300, I think, and the overall event size hasn't grown much.

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