Monday, July 16, 2007

129 Miles of The Death Ride

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of joining 2,800 cycling enthusiasts for the 27th anniversary of The Death Ride in Markleeville, CA. This "Tour of the California Alps" climbs over 15,000 feet as you work your way over five passes on the 129-mile course. The epic views, wonderful people, and white-knuckle descents made for a fantastic day, and I certainly hope to come back again.

It probably seems a little crazy to be doing a 129-mile ride just a week before the Tahoe Rim Trail 100-mile run, but I thought it would be good to spend a day exercising in the high desert to acclimatize, gauge my hydration, check the sunscreen strategy, etc. Plus I'm not ashamed to admit what drew me to the event years ago - the killer shwag! Emblazoned with Grateful Dead-like skeletons on bikes, I have been craving one of these jerseys for years. But you can't sport the threads if you haven't done the ride, no? I wasn't too worried that this would risk my first 100-mile run next week since The Death Ride gives plenty of chances to opt out at 2, 3, or 4 passes if you don't feel like going the distance. Plus the self-pacing nature of a "ride" meant there was no need to push your VO2Max to catch the guy in front of you. I figured I would take it easy, enjoy the day, and let my body dictate the distance.

(Mark Gilligan tackles the first hill)

I quickly found out I wasn't the only one crazy enough to try the Death Ride/TRT100 double, as Mark Gilligan pulled up beside me in the first mile out of Turtle Rock Park. Mark and two of his ultrarunning training partners, Jasper Helekas (TRT100 defending champion) and Rob Evans, were up in Tahoe to acclimate for the TRT100. Much like me, Mark was thrilled to find he had won a lottery entry to The Death Ride and couldn't pass it up despite the taunting from his pals. We both found comfort in knowing that riding with each other meant we wouldn't be tempted to go too hard.

(Quick break to peel off a layer on Monitor Pass)

We rode a few miles down the chilly river corridor and then started the first climb up Monitor Pass around 6:30am. The morning sun came to great us about half way up, quickly warming the still mountain range to 70 degrees. We grabbed some fig newtons at the first aid station and shed a few layers of clothes. I enjoyed chatting with Mark as we climbed - much like ultras, you can really get to know someone over a few hours! Mark has been getting very fast in his ultras the last few years, and I was shocked to learn his secret - he has lost nearly 50 lbs in the last four years! Amazing.

(Making our way up Monitor Pass)

We crested the first peak (mile 15), where a raging party was already taking place at aid station #2. Each rider got a sticker to prove they got to the top (collect all five!). The majority of cyclists at this event seem to fit the "enthusiast" category - regular riders who put in their weekly miles, but not quite the shave your legs/monster quads variety (although some of those folks were here too). I had learned from riders on the first climb that most were hoping to finish all five peaks to get the coveted "five peaks pin" at the top of the last hill. All this for a pin? I guess it's not much crazier than "all this for a belt buckle". ;-)

(The monument at Monitor Pass - one down, four to go!)

The descent on the back side of Monitor was WICKED fast. Mark is a phenomenal descender, and my speedometer hit 51 mph as I followed his lead down the winding road. Whew! Normally I don't get anywhere close to these speeds, but the road was smooth and the first four passes were blocked from traffic. Some folks took it slow, and they had plenty of room. By the time we hit the bottom, my body was pumped with enough adrenaline to sprint right back to the top! One thing for sure, any psychological impact from witnessing Debby's accident was no longer affecting my confidence on the bike. I bet she would be happy about that.

(The climb up the backside of Monitor Pass, photo courtesy of Adam Tow)

Mark and I stopped at aid station #3 at the bottom of the hill to refill the water bottles. The aid station volunteers were amazing at processing hundreds of us, and we back on the road in no time. We noted that there were at least 1,000 riders in front of us - this is an early rising crew!

(Mark heads back up Monitor through the canyons)

The climb back up affirmed that our descent had been long and steep. The canyon walls shot up on either side, providing little relief from the sun. Mark was eager to put his adrenaline to work, and snaked his way through the pack, dancing on his pedals. I held back to chat with some of the other cyclists. Many were doing this ride for the first time (many had attended the cleverly-named training camp, The Near Death Experience), but I also met one guy doing his 21st! There were mountain bikes, tandems, even a bike/scooter hybrid. About half way up, we saw the last rider coming down - a 13-year-old having no trouble at all with the descent.

(Making the most of every piece of shade)

Road kill can tell you a lot about the country you are in, and this ride was no exception. Rattlesnakes, horny toads, ground squirrels the size of small kangaroos - this was the high desert for sure! Most of the wildlife was already retreating into the shade, as the temperature was bordering a very dry 90 degrees. I noticed I was easily drinking 50 oz/hour, even at a moderate pace. My Sugoi Impact jersey and shorts (which Christi calls the "super hero suit") were doing a great job of keeping me cool.

(Another rider enjoying the high plains)

I crested Monitor Pass for the second time (35 miles) and pulled into the party aid station for some breakfast. Bagels with peanut butter hit the spot, as did taking a seat to stretch out. The self-pacing nature of these rides are great!

Topped up on food, water, and sunscreen, I took another fast descent (47 mph!) and hooked up with five riders who had a good pace going to the base of Ebbetts Pass, our next towering challenge. Since I do a lot of solo riding, I often forget how much easier it is to ride in a pack. This group had matching outfits (complete with "assvertising" of their company on their bike shorts) and clearly trained together. I wasn't sure about the protocol, so I asked if I could join in and warned them I'm a bit of a rookie at group riding. He summed it up in two breaths - "Stay on the wheel in front of you, 'cause that wheel is your lifeline. Always be behind, don't let your wheel get parallel. When you find yourself at the front, go a little harder for as long as you can, and the guy behind you will naturally pull in front as you slow." That's it? I think I can handle that! With little effort, our mini-peleton made mincemeat of the next six miles, picking up additional riders along the way. We approached the next aid station and I said my thanks as they continued their speedy pace.

(Snaking up Ebbetts Pass)

Mark was at the aid station, and after we both had some Coke and snacks, we tackled the 8-12 degree inclines of Ebbetts Pass. There was definitely a lot of out-of-the-saddle work here, particularly on a few switchbacks that reduced some riders to walking. Those wise enough to bring bikes with triple rings on the front pedaled softly on the right, while those of us pushing bigger gears rode up on the left. Riders were already descending down, meaning a few folks were already done with four peaks! I felt completely dried out despite my aggressive water intake, and my nose started to bleed as it cracked from the inside. Another rider gave me a great tip - squirt water on your fingertips and occasionally snort a few drops to stay lubed. I'm learning so much on this ride!

(Near the peak of Ebbetts Pass)

The last hike to the peak of Ebbetts was the steepest, eliciting groans all around. Mark had made it up fast enough to take a quick break in the shade, and got back on his bike as he saw me go through. We hit the top (mile 55) to find another lively aid station, but I knew the bottom was only 20 minutes away. We plunged down the backside of Ebbetts (37 mph), being cautious of the cracked and bumpy roads that were hard to read in the shadows.

At the bottom, I dismounted to have a Coke (and a smile) and sit in the shade just outside the aid station. I laid out my jacket and rested my back, and before I knew it, I was asleep! When I awoke a few minutes later, a cyclist next to me said "no problem, I'll be your snooze alarm...just tell me how long you want to rest". Ha! Mark and I talked with the group and found all kinds of tips and tricks people used to make it through the day - jumping in hotel swimming pools, taking a shower before the last pass, massages that were available at some of the aid stations, planned naps, etc. Mark and I jealously dreamed of shower stalls at mile 75 of the TRT100...

(Heading back up Ebbetts, photo courtesy of Adam Tow)

As we remounted to make climb #4, Mark and I began assessing our fatigue. This climb definitely felt like work, and we each had a few nagging chafe spots. Mark wanted to be cautious and said he was "going easy and only doing four passes". Mark, that's an 80-mile ride with 13,000 feet of vertical...I wouldn't call that going easy! I figured I would get up and over Ebbetts one more time and see how I felt. But so far, I was hanging in there.

Mark chuckled to himself when he saw the "1km to the top" chalked into the road. In an ultra, that means another 10 minutes, but on a bike, it means right around the corner! We paced with some riders from Davis, CA, Seattle, WA, Las Vegas, NV, and Manchester, England, then wished them well as we descended down the other side. We knew to hold back on the speed a bit (36 mph), since this road twisted quite a bit more.

(Lining up for lunch, photo courtesy of Adam Tow)

The aid station at the bottom of Ebbetts (mile 80) had transformed into a small city to feed all the cyclists a full lunch. It was 1:30pm, so Mark and I stopped for sandwiches, chips, and soft drinks in the shade. But the heat was too much for a long stay (my bike gauge read 92 degrees), so we quickly mounted up and headed back to Turtle Rock Park. Mark was still going strong - I have no doubt he could have done five passes - but decided to call it quits to save up for next weekend. I dropped my gear off at my car and did the quick self-assessment. I was tired, but I still felt good. The only issue I had was a creeping sunburn that somehow defied the half gallon of SPF 45 I had been applying all day. Then another cyclist told me what awaits at the top of Carson Pass - ice cream! OMG, that's all I needed to hear. I grabbed some bandanas out of the car to cover my neck and ears (high dork factor, but it sure works!), and waited for a group of riders to come by that I could join. A pack picked me up shortly, and I was on my way!

(A four mile stretch out to Carson Pass on a gorgeous day)

One of the first challenges you notice about tackling the fifth peak at Carson Pass is that you have to get there first! It was 3:30pm, and the winds were picking up. If you weren't with a group, even the downhills felt like work. I hit one last aid station before the climb (complete with near-shower at the hose), and found challenge #2 - the only traffic on the course. It wasn't too bad though - most of the cars slowed to 35 mph, and yelled out support. I loved that they called us "Death Riders" - I felt like I was in a motorcycle gang. Death Riders, saddle up!

(Heading up Carson Pass)

The higher we got on Carson Pass, the more the wind picked up. It was clear this wasn't going to come easy for anyone. Perhaps Mark had it right! I stopped at the aid station half way to the top, and slammed a Coke in one pull. It looks like my nutrition crutch in the same in ultra runs and rides!

As the caffeine and sugar mainlined into me, I felt like going hard to get through the wind ASAP. Despite the climbs so far, I had stayed cautiously around 60-70% of my max heart rate. I thought it might be a good simulation for next week to take a couple of hard pulls on tired legs and see how my body responded. With one last mouthful of Jelly Belly's, I kicked it up a gear.

As I passed a large group of 15 riders about 6 miles from the top, the headwind really picked up. It was tough, but I liked the fact that it cooled us down. The lead rider in the group asked if he could "get on my wheel", and I said "absolutely". I think it's the same amount of work for me either way, no? As if a telegraph had been sent down the line of cyclists, they all immediately got out of the saddle and surged to my speed. How cool!

About five minutes in, one rider came up and gave me a minute of relief so I could chug some water. Then he said "Mayday! Mayday! I'm going down!", and I pulled up in front of him again. I looked back and the snake of riders had grown! It really did look like a snake too - if I went left, they all went left. I wish I could have taken a video! I tucked in and pushed for another two minutes, and the guy behind me said "I'm sorry, I'm doing everything I can just to stay on your wheel...but your form is great!". I hollered back "no worries...I've been riding somebody's wheel all day, and that's the reason I have fuel left". Team spirit was alive and well on Carson Pass.

(The view to the top of Carson Pass, just as I'm blowing up)

I tackled the wind best I could. The guys behind me promised me beer, ice cream, high fives - anything to keep the tempo going. When I finally redlined about a mile from the top, I slowed and pulled to the back of the pack. Everyone was super-nice as they went by, patting me on the shoulders and saying "awesome pull". I tagged on to the back of the pack and sucked that wheel until we reached the top.

(Top of Carson Pass, complete with dork factor bandana)

There indeed was ice cream at the top of Carson Pass (mile 102), as well as seats in the shade, food, and a bunch of volunteers handing out the "five pass pin" to the smiling faces coming up the road. One volunteer asked I wanted a quick inspection of my bike, and I said sure. He pumped up my tires, taped down a wire that was loose, wiped down the bike and handed it back. Wow! Two Heath bars later, I mounted up to make the last descent.

Right away I noticed that my wheels were spinning much faster with the tire pressure up. Even without streamlining, my speedometer was in the mid 40's. Before too long, the five guy team I met earlier came by and one yelled "come with us!". I pulled in behind them and their drafting sucked me in like a tornado. The speedometer jacked up...45mph, 50mph, 55mph, 58mph! Yet behind this group, I could barely feel the wind at all. After a couple of minutes, I accidentally braked too much in a corner and they got about 10 yards ahead. I quickly learned that was the end of that - no way I could catch up. I now have a new respect for those Tour de France riders who get dropped from a peleton and somehow make their way back. It's nothing short of impossible!

At the bottom of the hill, I picked up another pack and we rode the 4 miles back to Turtle Creek Park. I got some food, signed my name on the big "five pass" poster, and listened to fellow cyclists talk about their journeys. It took me 11 hours, but I didn't feel exhausted. There's no doubt that's because I had so much help along the way, lots of water, and plenty of rest at the aid stations. Cycling doesn't have to be a team sport, but it's amazing what you can do if you ride as a team.

(Sunset over the pass as I head out, slightly overexposed, just like me)

I bought my "five pass finisher" jersey (Yeah! It was all about the shwag, after all), and headed back to Lake Tahoe into the sunset. I'm glad I fit in this ride and had a chance to see the gorgeous country out here. I think the time in the sun, dry air, and altitude will also be helpful in gauging next week. My thanks to all the organizers and volunteers who made this ride so much fun!

- SD


  1. Sounds like a lot of mass-shared-experience fun. Maybe I'll try that someday. Congrats. I think it will only help you next weekend.

  2. Nice work, Scott. You say you aren't a cyclist, but I've read about your cycling in most of the last five posts! Plus you have a superhero suit. I think its time to admit your a cyclist!

  3. Great job! Congrats on getting the 5-peaks pin, Scott.

  4. Just think, by next week a pin AND a belt buckle! Find a race that gives away purses and you will be completely accessorized.


  5. Ironically, Tim, they did give out some purse-like drop bags at TRT in '05. Maybe I can get the trifecta!


  6. Wow...that just sounds like it was an amazing experience! Glad you got your jersey and your pin :)

    I'm really excited to see how you do this weekend and Tahoe, and to finally get a chance to meet you. Hope you have a nice rest week in between these two endurance events!

  7. Way to go, Death Rider. That just isn't a walk in the park - but it is a nice indication of your fitness. Two buddies of mine are doing L'Etape du Tour today, and they're whinging about the 10,000 foot elevation gain over 120 miles. Can't wait to tell them that Markleeville has that beat.

  8. Scott,

    That ride looks really fun. I like the idea of the stickers...and I never thought about being pulled by the draft of other bikers. You might like what was on 'the goat' today:

  9. Nice work, man! Now, relax and get ready! Have a great time out there next weekend. Can't wait to read the report! Remember, get out of 50 fast!
    Rod Bien

  10. That sounds very cool, beautiful and very scary! I can't imagine over 50 mph downhill speed!!! Great that you had teamed up with Mark, sounds like fun partnership. And while you're finally resting - just wishing you best of luck this weekend, smart and consistent race, no stomach problems, little bonks cured with gels and lots of smiles - and pictures!

  11. Great job to you and Mark, good preparation for TRT! Enjoy the week, I'll think of you next weekend as I'll run on the UTMB course in Chamonix (just training).


  12. hi scott,

    man, you are pretty crazy, in a good way. :) enjoy the recovery. see you this weekend at trt.



  13. Dang, and I think the climb up Edgewood is hard.... (grin). Now I have something to aspire to next year! Congrats!

  14. Dang, and I thought the climb up Edgewood was tough (grin). This gives me something to aspire to next year. Congrats, Scott!

  15. I thought of you this weekend as I was doing the Donner Lake Tri, thinking "Should I really be doing this 6 days before TRT?" Then I thought, Scott is doing the Death Ride right now and he is going 100 at TRT, so what I am doing is really nothing! (It actually made me less worried!)
    Sounds like the ride was a blast, and you are clearly in great shape for your upcoming 100 debut. I predict great things for you on Saturday. See you there!

  16. Scott -

    im a soon to be blogger, and am curious about that link to Sugoi in the story. i also see the logo. are they paying you for advertising? specifically, are they paying you for the link in the story? it's just on the border of endorsement...

    Greg Mcmillan

  17. Gretchen - 3:15 at Donner Lake Tri! Nice work. I bet that was fun.

    Greg - You're not the first to ask me about the links to products. The quick answer is no, I am not paid for linking to their site. They also do not pay me for the Sugoi link on the right. But I am part of their "brand ambassador" team that allows me to get free and discounted products (similar to Injinji and Inov-8).

    All of my "sponsors" found me the same way. I was raving about their products in the blog, and they reached out to me to ask if I wanted to join their teams. In a few cases, the links ended up driving significant purchases. Of course I was happy to be on the team - I was already raving about their products! But I think this is a prime example of how blogging can change up the rules a bit. For me, it helps to not receive income on the blog so I don't feel any pressure to change content.

    I do have companies sending me new products to try out on occasion. If they don't make it into my regular training/nutrition, I don't write about them.

    Be sure to send me a link to your new blog when it's up!


  18. Good luck this weekend with your 100 miler.

    Does their website have a live webcast of the event? I'm sure quite a few of your regular readers (myself included) would love to follow along.

  19. David -

    No real-time follow along that I know of for TRT. I will see if my crew (ie, dad) might be up for sending an update to the blog every 25 miles or so. I have set it up to do mobile blog updates from my new iPhone (my latest technolust object...sooooo cool).


  20. Scott,

    first of all thanks for the excellent report on your 129 mile bike journey!

    In the past you've mentioned what your training week looks like. In preparation for your first 100 miler have you changed your training and if yes in what respect?

    All the best for the big 100 (miles) - I'm sure you'll do well.

    Mick (UK)

  21. Mick -

    Good to hear from you. I didn't change my training much for the 100m, short of actually tapering over the last two weeks (which I never do). I did focus a lot more on hydration, and checking my weight before and after runs.

    Other than that, it's been the same - 6-10 miles 4x week, one 10-13 miler, and one 20+ miler. We'll find out on Sat if that was enough!


  22. That was an awesome post Scott. you seriously had me in the midst of the event with your descriptive prose. Sounded darned hard. Nice job on earning the 5 peaks pin!


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