Yesterday was not a good day for me: I bonked with over 100 miles to go. But still went.
In endurance sports, particularly cycling and running, hitting the wall or the bonk describes the condition when an athlete suddenly loses energy and becomes fatigued, the result of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles becoming depleted.
It seems that my paucity of training and inability to sleep has finally caught up with me. My strong performance at the NPC ride 5 weeks ago led me to believe that I was in better shape than I really was and that RAMROD (Ride Around Mt. Rainier in One Day) would not be as difficult as it is. No, yesterday wasn't just a bad day. It was misery on wheels.
I tagged along with Dale, a guy I ride with on Thursdays, and some of his friends who I hadn't ever met before. We all share an aversion to waking up earlier than necessary so rather than start between 5am and 7am as is customary, the five of us rolled up to the starting line at 7:40am. The "sweep vehicle" would be our guide. Kind of funny since our leader had reportedly won the Mt. Baker Hill Climb. We would eventually pass quite a few people, some who started up to two hours before us, but not before enjoying a no-wait all-you-can-eat buffet at the first two aid stations we passed.
Our group dwindled to just Dale, Jeff (the hillclimb champ), and myself after 34 miles. One guy was feeling really awful and the other had to turn back cause his babysitter had a change of plans. And that is why you don't bring a cellphone on your bike rides, but I digress.
I was feeling great for the first 45 miles or so. I was eating and drinking well, my legs felt fresh, and other than a twinge in my achilles tendon, I felt on the ball. Then it suddenly went downhill. I couldn't keep up with Dale and Jeff. I had to drop my speed on the flats and was beginning to feel nauseus. My abdominal muscles were cramping, my neck and shoulders were stiff, and I had no energy. We weren't 50 miles into the ride and I was starting to inexplicably bonk. And we hadn't even done any of the climbing yet. I was in trouble.
The climb up to Paradise on the south side of Mt. Rainier was about 12 miles long, ascending roughly 2800 feet. Dale and Jeff pulled away from me and although I passed a number of people on this climb, I was hurting. I was barely going 6 mph and I was starting to have serious reservations about my ability to finish this ride. I eventually got to the top of the climb, loaded up on fruit and water, and readied myself for the descent. My comrades were enjoying the day, and didn't seem to mind waiting for me -- something I neither like people having to do for me, nor am very used to it. I decided to tell them my big secret: this was only my second ride over 60 miles this year. They didn't look amused.
The long, fast descent was fun, but it eventually brought us to another climb. This one was just a mile or two and didn't gain more than a thousand feet, but it was enough to confirm what I already knew: the climb up Cayuse Pass was going to bring me to my knees. And it did. Some 97 miles into the ride, the climb up Cayuse Pass began. Dale and Jeff pulled away and I was left to wobble back and forth up the road at a lowly 5 mph. The climb was over 6 miles in length and ascended over 2,000 feet in elevation and I was hurting. It was hot, I was rationing my water so as to not run out, and portions of the road were reduced to gravel due to ongoing construction work. I stopped less than halfway up to sit in the shade for a few minutes. Had I have seen a SAG wagon, I would have certainly flagged it down and put an end to the pain.
But I didn't see any SAG wagons so after a few minutes in the shade, I queesily got back on the bike and pedaled to the next aid station where, like an oasis in the desert, large quantities of water flowed freely. There's no telling how long Dale and Jeff were waiting but they were in good spirits and urged me on and not to give up. So I did. A few miles of climbing later, we reached the top of Cayuse Pass. 106 miles done, about 40 or so to go. And all downhill.
I was in such bad shape, that I thought of hitching a ride back to Enumclaw from the top of Cayuse Pass. I had done all of the hard work -- there would be only 300 feet of climbing in the last 45 miles -- so, I figured, there would be no shame in this DNF. Except there's always shame in a DNF I told myself and rolled out.
The descent from Cayuse Pass to Crystal Mountain was epic. The wind was a bit gusty, but these 10 miles were ticked through in less than 20 minutes. The Redmond Cycling Club that organizes this event, had made-to-order coldcut sandwiches and -- be still my heart -- ice-cold cans of Coca-Cola at the final aid station. We still had 30 miles to go, but I was finally thinking I just might finish this thing.
The three of us scorched the road back from Crystal Mountain, past Greenwater, towards Enumclaw. A heaven-sent tailwind (an absolute anomaly in this area) blessed us with an average speed of 23 mph for some 20 miles or so and I was even able to take a few 5-minute pulls at the lead. The final 10 miles were once again very rough for me. I was beyond bonking now. I was on the verge of tears, on the precipice of vomiting, and quite literally starting to wonder exactly what this effort was doing to my body. I started feeling the bonk some 7 hours prior and I continued to go on.
I was watching the odometer closely and when we turned onto Mud Mountain Road, I thought for sure we only had about 4 miles left. But when Jeff, who had done the ride multiple times before, said was had 12 to 15 miles to go, I nearly broke down sobbing. Well, at least that's how Dale said I looked. I was pretty confident Jeff was wrong and, it turned out he was.
Somehow, some way, I dragged my battered body 150 miles around Mt. Rainier National Park and did finish. The altimeter reported a cumulative elevation gain of just under 9,000 feet and, a total time (including some very lengthy rest stops) of just over 11 hours. And for those who like numbers, here's one more for you: I lost 6 pounds of body weight yesterday.
Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the event. And it will be another 25 years before I do this again.
(and if I do, next time I might even train for it)
Note: RAMROD really is a great event. It's incredibly well-organized, has great volunteers and takes cyclists through 150 miles of some of the most scenic countryside there is. Any negativity sensed in this account is directly strictly at myself. I knew I could "struggle through" this and finish and, to be honest, I thought I was in better shape than I was. Or maybe I just had a bad day. I don't know. But my sour mood and struggles yesterday were in no way a reflection of the event. It was the greatness of the event and the beauty of the scenery that lured me to keep on spinning the pedals 100 miles beyond where I wanted to stop. And I'm glad it did because the one thing I didn't see yesterday was my breaking point. I know it's out there somewhere, and I hope to never see it, but despite how slow yesterday was and how much I struggled, I'm damn proud of that finisher's patch.