Saturday, July 18, 2009

Fast Descents at The Death Ride

Last Saturday, I geared up with five friends to tackle The Death Ride, a 130-mile cycling adventure through the Sierra Mountains near Markleeville, CA. We got a bit of everything on this ride – sun, wind, rainstorms, 15,000’ of climbing over five peaks, and the exciting adventure of nearly missing a cut off and having to put down the hammer at mile 100. But at the end we were all smiles and already thinking about next year.

I had a great team for the ride, including Brian and Dan (who crewed for me at States), my brother Mike Dunlap (out from Maryland where there aren’t many hills), and our good friends Chris Devine and Mark Dabell. They were all tackling this hilly monster for the first time (I had done it in 2007), and eager to finish all five peaks to get that coveted pin and jersey. I was playing “domestique” for the day to return the favor to Brian and Dan for their awesome job of crewing at States. At 5:40am, I filled my backpack for any emergency I could think of, and we coasted through Markleeville and headed into the first climb.

(A little cloud cover eases the first climb)

We took it easy at first, noting that despite our early start we were probably in the back 1/3 of the 3000 riders already. After asking around, it was clear that most people had shown up in the dark and took off once there was enough light, whereas we had targeted 5:30am and left 20-30 minutes after the pack. The hills were dotted with colorful jerseys that snaked their way to the summit, and the only sounds were of the chatter riders and local wildlife. No cars sure is great!

(Mike, donning the super-cool Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon sleeves, charges up the first climb)

(The cloudscapes were wonderful...and cooling)

Brian and Dan were the most dedicated cyclists in our group, and both had already logged five centuries this year. Chris, Mike, and Mark were leaning more on their natural athletic ability (running, hockey, and mountain climbing respectively), only recently clocking some time on the bike. I was mostly recovered from States – just a few missing toenails and a body that still wants to sleep 12 hours a night. We all had kids between the age of 8 months and 11 years too, and that definitely counts as cross-training. We made some rough plans to work as a team in the longer sections and stop at some aid stations, but for the most part, the course would dictate how we would ride.

(Brian and Mike settle into a rhythm)

(Out of the saddle, boys! Brian, Chris, and Mike charge the hill)
(Dan leads us up Monitor)

The first climb up Monitor Pass was steep and sobering, and we had a few moments of quiet as everyone humped through the more difficult sections. Chris, Mike, and Mark were unconcerned with the climbs, but shared some worries about the fast descents. Their hesitation quickly subsided once we reached the peak and plummeted down the smooth back side. Each of them found their groove on these long, flawless roads, and surprised themselves with 45+ mph descents. We arrived at the bottom of the hill with our hair streaked back, full of adrenaline and ready for the climb. All three of them had clocked PR fastest speeds and hadn’t even known it!

(We've got the road to ourselves!)

As we filled our water bottles (and I forced S! Caps on everyone) I chatted with Mark Gilligan, whom I had ridden with last year. He was out having some fun and acclimating for the Tahoe Rim Trail 50m the following weekend, a plan that worked well for him in 2007 (he got 2nd at the TRT100). He grabbed a Vespa from me, hoping it would alleviate his lack of sleep (he was the only guy yawning at the bottom). I handed the sunscreen around, and we charged up the next climb.

(Bryan Pate takes his ElliptiGo bike through all 5 peaks, while the man in orange donned a '77 classic bike with nearly all original parts)

The sun warmed the canyons, and soon sweat was dripping from our noses. Sparse sections of shade were quickly claimed by groups of cyclists stopping to catch their breath. That long descent had some payback comin’! Brian and Chris went ahead, while Mike and I paced together, and Mark and Dan were just a few minutes behind. We climbed slowly, passing riders here and there, taking in the scenery and catching up on life. Century rides are a good way to get men talking and sharing…anything but focusing on the climb. ;-)

(Dan "The Diesel" sets the pace up Monitor, part 2)

We took a longer break at the top to hit the restrooms and get some food. Brian noted that riding in a pack was going to add some time, so once most of the group was together, they took off down the hill.

Just when I thought I had lost Mike, I pulled up alongside of him (he had been ahead of me…oops). We worked together to catch up to the others, and refueled before tackling Ebbetts Pass, the longest and hardest of the day. I offered some domestique advice and pulled out five bandanas for us to soak and put on the back of our necks. Brian added a step of filling it with ice, which was nice. The S! Caps were going down quickly, so I handed out little baggies of supplies and got everyone to apply sunscreen again. Then we were off!

Ebbetts had us out of the saddle immediately, charging short sections of 20 degree grades. Back and forth we switched up the mountain, and the views grew more epic the more we climbed. It seemed to take forever to see the “4 miles to go” signs chalked into the road, but then again, we were only going about 5 mph. I reached the top first, and as agreed, we all skipped this aid station and charged down the 5 mile descent.

(Mike charges Ebbetts, complete with bandana)

(Rider up! Fast finishers begin the descent as we climb)

My first request at the aid station proved that we were definitely in the back of the race – no Coke left! They also ran out of bread for sandwiches, but the inventive volunteers made a special banana/peanut butter/oatmeal cookie treat to replace it. It took about 10 minutes for the gang to all rally together, and everyone was hoping for a rest. The provided chairs did just that, but noting the time, we cut our break short and headed back up Ebbetts for climb #4.
I warned the gang that climb #4 was the most underrated. It didn’t have the long or steep of previous passes, but it had no flat spots and very little shade. We soaked our bandanas, handed out some snacks, and stuck close as we made our way up. We saw the sweep coming down the other side…it was much closer than we expected!

(Cresting Ebbetts for pass #4)

(Chris and Mark set the pace up Ebbetts, part 2)

We reached the peak, and charged down the other side. Brian quickly broke out on his own, with me in pursuit. The speedometer crept into the 50’s as we bunny-hopped the cowguards and made our way through the steep sections. When I came off the steepest section at full speed, I let a group slingshot me around and hit 65 mph! Well, that’s what the speedometer said anyway. My guess is I was around 60 mph. Still, very exciting!

We stopped for lunch, chowing down on ham and turkey wraps before hitting the road again. I’m not sure if it was our pace, the waiting, or what, but suddenly we were dangerously within one hour of the cutoff. We worked with “Team Beer” (awesome jerseys) to make quick time to Markleeville and climb back up to our cars. Brian flatted, so we stopped to fix it. Mike and I dropped our gear at the car, and caught up with the group to see them fixing ANOTHER flat for Brian (this time the whole tire). Mike and I looked at our watches, and we were barely going to make it. Mike kept charging and I turned around to make sure they had all the right gear. They did, but there was no time to wait. Everyone took off as fast as they could.

Mike made the cut off, and I got there second, just as they were setting up the cones to turn people away from the aid station. They said “you’re done”, but waived me in to the aid station to refill. I saw others skipping the aid station and heading up the last pass, and one of the volunteers told me why it was important to stop – if you couldn’t make the next aid station by 5:15pm, it was very likely you wouldn’t get off the hill by nightfall. I asked “how far?” and they said six miles. I said I could easily make that cutoff, and they just shrugged their shoulders and one said “then you better get going…they won’t be lenient at the next one”. I clicked down a few gears and started climbing up Carson Pass.

Mark had snuck in right behind me, and I explained the math. We had about an hour to go six miles, so best to put the hammer down. I got out of the saddle and charged like a madman, catching Mike a few minutes later. He knew the math too – better average at least 6 mph. But he was clocking about 8 mph, so he was right on track. We wondered about the others, and whether they got turned around. Knowing Brian and Dan, I doubt they would stop, and would reach that fifth peak officially or unofficially. For the next hour, it was every rider for themselves.

I pegged my heart rate just under my anaerobic threshold and started passing as many people as I could. The traffic was heavy, so I had to wait for the breaks and then surge out into the lane. Each time I would focus on the next group of riders and how to get around them. I passed 50, 90, 140 riders before seeing the final cutoff aid station and I charged in…4:30pm, still 45 minutes ahead! That was good for a couple of reasons. First, I was in the clear. Second, there was plenty of time for the others if they kept the pace. Lastly, a faster pace like this would get us up to the peak by 6:15pm or so, with plenty of light for the descent.

I got off my bike and watched for the others. At first, I saw nothing. I paced. I fretted. What kind of domestique surges first to the cutoff? I looked again. Then they came! Brian and Chris first, both looking strong. The official cutoff was still 300 yards up the road, so I refilled some bottles for them and they took off. Mark and Mike weren’t too far behind, so we did the same. I got a glimpse of Dan, who had 10 minutes to spare, so I jumped on the bike and took off with Mark and Mike. We were all going to make it!

Not so fast, said Mother Nature, and the rain and wind began. What started as a light drizzle quickly became a sideways wind that blew riders all over the road. Chris and Mike tucked in behind me, and we caught ourselves laughing out loud at how instantly the weather became so crazy. The rain was pouring off my visor, and I leaned 20 degrees to the right to stay upright. This made it tough for drafting, since Chris and Mike would have to ride in traffic to take full advantage. A few miles later the rain broke, but the wind kept howling. Chris latched onto a faster rider to go catch Brian and Mark, while Mike and I kept our pace.

(Last climb, complete with wind, rain, and cars!)

Mike said “sorry I’m yo-yoing”, saying his energy was borderline bonk. But honestly, I was pretty impressed that his pace was still enough to be consistently passing people. We made a few new friends as we went into the last climb (brothers in arms, for sure), as I assured people over and over that this was truly the last climb. Every time I got out of the saddle, I looked back and saw Mike do the same, his face the epitome of focus. He only broke a smile when we coasted into the last aid station and got our stickers for the fifth pass. Fudgesicles never tasted so good!

(The oh-so-stylish plastic bag jackets, posed under the rainbow)

Brian, Chris, and Mark were on their way out, noting that it was going to be a cold and wet descent. Mike and I slammed down our ice cream, grabbed a couple of plastic bags for makeshift vests, and headed out. Just as we started the descent, Dan came in. Sure enough, all five made all five!

Mike cruised the descent tucked in behind a tandem bike, while I used a BMW to pull me through the flat spots and keep my speed in the 40-50 mph range. I pulled up to our cars, where the boys were already changed and into their first beer. As Mike and Dan came in, there were high fives all around. We piled into the truck and headed to Turtle Rock for some food and “3 for $10” Sierra Nevada Pale Ales. I looked in my backpack, and we had gone through all the bandanas, all the sunscreen, over 40 S! Caps, and a ton of snacks. But what I saw was five happy five-pass finishers, all hydrated, and no sunburns. A domestique couldn’t ask for much more!

(5-pass finishers Dan, Mike, Brian, Chris, me, and Mark)

Although stressful at the time, we all shared how fun it was to have to go hard at mile 100. The five pass jersey felt a bit more “earned”, you know? Certainly nothing like the Tour de France, where you would race this stage hard, then add 20-odd more just like it over the next three weeks. But still, it was good to be forced to find something in ourselves to push hard. Brian had missed the cut off and was told he wouldn’t get a fifth sticker even if he did summit; that turned out to be enough rage for him to make one of the fastest splits all day (and yes, he did get the sticker).

(The raincloud looked amazing at sunset)

Now off for a few days backpacking on the John Muir Trail to get “off the grid”. Hope you all are having a great July!

- SD


  1. I've been following your blog for a while and always admire how positive and enthusiastic you are. So it's kind of ironic that I finally comment on a cycling post, but I really enjoyed this one. Keep it up, I love your blog and reading about your races.

  2. Great write-up Scott and thanks very much for a world class July (WS100, Death Ride and backpacking)! It's been a great learning experience for me to work through these events with you and I appreciate your expert oversight. Next year, I'll shoot to add TRT50k to the mix and go for another epic July! Thanks again!

  3. Sounds like an awesome day in (and out of) the saddle. Glad you had the chance to share it with good friends Btw, Mark did win the 50M yesterday, in some rather warm temps. Oh, and Brian, we'll be looking for you at the TRT50K next year!
    Thanks for the report Scott!

  4. That's a very cool jersey .... well worth the hard work it takes to earn it I'm sure. Happy July!

  5. Running, running and more running. If you have it in your heart it's like nothing else. I love to run. Bur I found this workout site that makes it fun by switching it up a bit. It's great for getting in shape fast, its free to to. Check it out.

  6. Thanks for the comments, everyone! It certainly was a great time.

    I'm actually back from the week in the Sierras. Great to "get off the grid" for a few days. I snapped some shots at TRT on my way home, and will post.


  7. Great account Scott. One distinct memory was you yelling "Yeeaaaaaah!" as we began to get blasted by the wind and rain from the storm on Carson Pass right as I was thinking "I'm not so sure about this". Great stuff. Glad there was no lightning. Thanks again for a great adventure. Chris

  8. This was my first Death Ride and I had a blast. It's funny how a little 5-pass pin can be SO important after all that climbing.

    Congratulations to you and your friends for finishing all 5 passes.

  9. Scott,
    Really nice account of the Death Ride, something that is on my "bucket list." You really do a wonderfully informative blog with great pics.
    Glad you are recovering from the WS 100 near "death run!" Would love to chat with you more about it sometime and about things that I believe could make it less of a stress on your body while getting more out of your gifted physiology (my area of expertise). Perhaps if my husband and I do one of our visits to the Bay Area to do cycling and/or trail runs, we could ride together? (you run way too fast for me!...although I am currently 2nd in the PCTR trail pt series in my age group despite living in PA now :)).
    All the best, Ann

  10. I love to read about all your races. I dont know if Ill ever go longer than a marathon, but I like to live vicariously through you as I read your great articles. Im wondering if I could get a little advice- I qualified for Boston in PF Chang's Rock n Roll Arizona. I would really love to do the Boston 2 Big Sur. Am I crazy to try back to back marathons, when Ive only ever run 2 marathons thus far? And what do I do in the 5 days between the 2 marathons? Do I run at all? Or just recover? My regular running base is just 30 miles a week. Id appreciate any advice...thanks for sharing your races over the years!

  11. Lindy -

    Congrats on your Boston qualifier! You'll have a great time in Boston.

    Since I'm not familiar with your running background, etc., I can't really offer specific advice. I would first ask how you felt after the PF Chang Arizona marathon - were you ready to jog again within a couple of days? Or did it wipe you out for weeks?

    I've found that if you're careful, two marathons a week apart is doable. You just have to listen to your body and make sure you don't go into the second one hurting. A little sore in the muscles is okay, but joint, tendon, or deeper pain is probably a good hint to stay off the pavement.

    Here's what I've found to be the best recovery between back to back marathons:

    1) All the usual recovery tips like drinking lots of water, eating right, cool down, eat your vitamins, etc., should be followed.

    2) A post-race and/or pre-race massage between the two races would be a good investment. I did the free massage at Boston before the race, then got another massage the day before Big Sur and felt they were both worthwhile.

    3) Take two days off for sure after Boston. Jog just a bit for the few days before Big Sur just to stay loose, but no workouts. And you don't need mileage either - a mile or two max will do the trick.

    4) Ice bath after Boston for sure. Fill the tub with as cold of water as possible, just high enough so you can sit in it and have the water cover your legs. Go five minutes, then dump a few buckets of ice in and go another five minutes. The seconds will go by slower than the last .2 miles of a marathon, but it's worth it. Do it within 4-5 hours of finishing Boston, such as when you're back at the hotel.

    5) I often take an Aleve before a race to loosen up, particularly if I've been racing in the previous week. If you've practiced this before training runs and it's good for you, take one before each marathon.

    That's about it for tips. I'm looking forward to the B 2 B as well...anything for the right shwag, right? Don't forget to sign up on Sept 1st...there are limited slots.


  12. This sounds like excellent advice! Thankyou for taking the time to give it. I will save this advice, and let you know down the road if I end up being brave enough to do both! Im leaning toward trying!

    True about the schwag- I laugh at my kids for being so willing to subject themselves to anything at the dentist office, with the allure of the "treasure chest" they get to dig in afterwards. But Im the SAME about race schwag. Lol.

  13. My name is Nitin from Toronto. I am interested in your writing. Some of your posting are good, I can say, best. Can you please tell me how to subscribe to your blog post online?


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