Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Death Valley Day: Cycling 200 Miles in the Desert

The mere mention of Death Valley conjures up an image of a broiling, desolate desert, baking under the scorching sun. Many also know it is the location of the lowest altitude in the country, at 282 feet below sea level. (This is one of the reasons for the extremely hot climate, as the valley generates a tremendous amount of heat.)

Sounds like a great place for a race, right? Well, yes, given the inclination of endurance athletes to seek out the most extreme environments in which to test their mettle. The Badwater 135 Mile running race takes place in July, during Death Valley’s hottest, most harsh season. The Death Valley Double Century cycling race is held in late October, not nearly as formidable in terms of air temperature or the effects of the sun.

The latter is an event I targeted this year. Never having cycled more than 125 miles in one day before this year (a double “metric” century, or 200 kilometers), I aimed at completing a true double century, a 200-mile ride, and the setting of Death Valley seemed a great place for the challenge. Having been held for several years, the event draws several hundred participants annually (along with the concurrent 100-mile century).

The long, lonely roads of Death Valley: perfect for cycling

(photo from Adventure Corps)

My training went pretty well; I averaged close to 200 miles per week in the month preceding the race, followed by a taper period of 10 days. I attempted two long solo rides, and both were relatively successful. The first was 125 miles and the second 137. But after both I was pretty much wiped out, especially the second one, done in cold, raw, wet weather, nothing like I would experience in Death Valley, where less than two inches of rain falls in an average year. As tired as I was after those training rides, it was hard to imagine adding more than 60 or 70 more miles. But that’s all part of the challenge of attempting something you have never done before.

On Thursday, October 25, I traveled to Las Vegas, the closest city to Death Valley, but as opposite in attitude and temperament as is possible. The drive to Death Valley is a little more than 100 miles from Sin City, and the ostentatious, glitzy, garish, over-the-top Las Vegas is left far behind soon after you leave the city limits and embrace the wide open expansive desert that comprises so much of the American Southwest.

I stayed at a funky old hotel just outside of Death Valley National Park and readied for the event early the next morning. Arriving at the race scene in Furnace Creek, California, I could not help but embrace the quiet calmness of the desert environment. In addition, the temperature was just about perfect: in the low 70s with light winds. As the group gathered for the start at 7:00 a.m., I really did not know what to expect. I was sure I could make it well past 100 miles, but what would happen after 150? And in addition to the distance, there was the elevation. Yes, there are mountains in the desert, soaring to several thousand feet. During the ride we would encounter two major climbs: the first of 4,000 feet at mile 55 (covered over 20 miles) and the second 2,000 feet at mile 170, over just seven miles. That was the one I was truly worried about.

But that was for later. You can’t get to mile 170 until you do the first 169 miles, so at the start I settled into the pack and tried to take in the stark surroundings as daylight slowly emerged. I covered the first relatively easy 50 miles in less than three hours, but slowed as we started the first big climb while battling a pesky headwind. Fortunately we had merged with the century riders at that point; I worked with two century riders in a mini paceline so the wind would not sap my energy before a third of the race was completed. Yes, at the 68-mile aid stop at Scotty’s Castle we still had more miles left than I had ever covered in a single ride before (aside from the training ride 17 days earlier). Scotty’s Castle was named after Walter Scott, a 19th century con man who talked a Chicago business tycoon into building him a mansion in this lonely outpost.

Just before turning into the aid station, I saw a dog trotting down the road behind a slow moving camper. But it was no dog; it was a very relaxed looking coyote. Perhaps he or she was anticipating the plentiful scraps to be found at the aid station. Speaking of that, I was adjusting my nutrition plan as the ride progressed. I was primarily drinking Perpertuem, a non-acid energy drink, and eating salty sports bars. I added some “real” food at this station, a half of a turkey sandwich, and later on slurped down some ramen noodles. My quest for caffeine was not fulfilled until late in the race, as all of the Coca Cola had disappeared with the century riders at this stop.

Those century riders turned back at mile 68 while we doublers soldiered onward up the mountain. By then, in early afternoon, when one would have thought the sun and temperature at its peak for the day, a heavy cloud cover made it seem more like New England than the Southwest desert. This was in part due to the now famous southern California forest fires, which had sent acrid air several hundred miles east to Death Valley. Thus, a tradeoff: cooler conditions for tougher breathing. My throat and lungs felt a slight burning as the miles accumulated, but that was better than broiling under a hot sun.

After a turnaround at mile 95, we had 20 fairly flat miles and a side trip up to Ubahebe Crater and back (on a very beat up chip-and-seal road surface) before enjoying the long downhill on the same road we had climbed at mile 55. That downhill began at mile 140, which I reached at about 4:30. p.m., nine and a half hours into the ride. It was surreal blasting alone along the empty highway, bereft of people and with hardly any motor vehicles. I was also in new territory as far as daily distance was concerned, hanging in there pretty well, with only the usual sore butt, tired quads, and achy upper body. Cruising past 150, then 160 miles, I felt confident, although darkness arrived quickly, just as I reached the 170-mile aid station, the final steep climb looming ahead.

Ubahebe Crater: Don't look too closely!

(photo from Adventure Corps)

There comes a point in every long race, a crucible you have to pass through in order to reach the finish line, or so it seems. Clearly, the seven-mile climb up to the appropriately named Hell’s Gate was that crucible in this double century. For the first couple of miles I was wondering if I had made the correct turn, as no other cyclists were anywhere around and the uphill did not seem that bad. All of that changed quickly as the grade steepened, my energy flagged, and I saw the red taillights of other riders way up ahead. The road was pitch black, lighted only by the headlight on my bike. It felt a lot like some of the ultra distance runs I have done, dealing with the dark of night after pushing hard all day long. My mental resolve disintegrated with each additional mile, grinded out ever so slowly. I could not read my cyclometer in the dark, which was just as well, since the snail-like pace would have only depressed me further. In the final part of the climb, I had to stop and dismount the bike periodically in order to bring my racing heart rate down. In all, it took me nearly 70 minutes to make it to the aid station at the top, where I tried to recover. I did not linger long though, as the temperature was dropping quickly.

What goes up must come down, and so it was on this route, as we headed back down to highway 190 toward the finish line. Cycling down a steep hill in the pitch black of night was something I had never done in training for this race, but perhaps I should have. I was almost too tired to be nervous, but still, I was not relishing the thought of veering off the road into the rock-strewn fields or riding into a pothole that would jettison me off the bike. I gingerly made my down, getting a little bolder and more confident as I went. Without any cars around, I rode as close to the centerline as I could. What a relief it was to finally arrive back at 190 and the final 12 miles to the finish back in Furnace Creek.

A check of my watch (thankfully with a backlight) showed it was 8:20 p.m. I would have to pedal those last dozen miles in less than 40 minutes to get in under 14 hours, which I had estimated before the race as a possible finishing time. So: a goal! I cranked along, surprised at how strong I felt after more than 13 hours in the saddle. Having left the steep mountains behind, it was much easier to negotiate the roads in the darkness. 8:45, 8:50, 8:55. Where was that finish line? I knew it had to be well lit, but all I could see ahead was darkness. I decided I would push hard to 14 hours no matter what, then slow down if I had not reached the finish. Just as that thought was in my head, there it was. As I turned into the parking lot, my watch read 8:59 p.m. It was a gratifying conclusion to my first double century. Sure, some had already finished by that time, but there were also many still out on the course. The warm and well-lit finish area was a welcome haven from the darkness that had enveloped Death Valley. All that remained was the 40-mile drive back to the hotel, the trip back to Las Vegas the next day, and an overnight flight back to Boston. That distance didn't seem so bad, however, after 200 straight miles on the bike.

Happy to be finished: With race director Chris Kostman after the race

(photo by AdventureCorps)