October 29, 2006 Fall Death Valley Double Century
After 175 miles and 9,000 feet of climbing in Death Valley, I'm feeling pretty good while rounding the corner at Hell's Gate. A momentary stop for turn-point verification appears to be a small personal victory as I pass a number of riders who are refueling in preparation for the final push into Furnace Creek. A little more than 20 miles ahead is the culmination of a season's long training effort that has been a journey of priceless experience.
Riding through the silence of a Death Valley night, I think back to the first century ride of the year; the McClinchy Mile in Arlington, Washington. 111 miles in mid-March that proved to be a six-plus hour challenge to endure the elements of wind and cold of the Pacific Northwest. The same sensation from that frigid March morning's cold air rushing over my body seems real to me now as the descent from Hell's Gate slaps me back to reality. Plunging headlong into a place that many have called Hell should not feel this cold.
Climbing 2000 feet of elevation in the 7 miles to Hell's Gate had been a sweaty affair. Now the cooling effect of evaporation was working against me as the desert night sliced all the way to my core. Succumbing to hypothermia in Death Valley? I would have laughed out loud if I could have only stopped my body from shivering and my teeth from chattering. Instead of laughing I spent every second of that black descent with both hands full of brakes just trying to hang onto the bike. The situation cascades deeper into Hell as I can tell that my stomach will soon become the biggest loser in my body's battle to keep vital systems intact.
A grievous lighting equipment miscalculation further exacerbated an already bad situation. With poor night lighting equipment it is impossible to tell where the pavement ends and the desert begins. It is a struggle to keep the wheels as close as possible to the faded yellow center stripe and I find myself frustrated with the California Highway Department. I wonder how many years it has been since they’ve stepped as much as a foot in Hell. The sad reality is that the highway department had nothing to do with my poor decision to use inadequate lights on this ride. My mountain biking lights would have been a better choice even if they are a bit heavier than the mistake now fitted to my handlebars. There’s no time for these distractions now.
Somewhere I read about hallucinations due to sleep deprivation during long rides. This ride’s not long enough for mind tricks. I'm sure a couple of helmet flashing UFO’s and a sagebrush rooster don't count as real hallucinations. Just over twelve hours isn’t long enough to feel the effects of sleep deprivation. But, I can't stop yawning and my mind dangerously strays away from the faded yellow stripe in the middle of the road. I can’t help but wonder if hypothermia affects the brain as well as the body.
After a brief incursion into the desert for some off-road night riding, I manage to get back onto the pavement without donating any skin. Scoffing out loud I allow my thoughts to wander to a similar off-road incident that I had on last June’s Flying Wheels Century ride. I recall that at that time my wife Desiree had a good laugh and I consider the fact that I should have learned my lesson by now. That beautiful June ride was Desiree’s first century. With a big climb at mile 83, Desiree motored up that hill like it was merely a distraction.
Earlier this morning I left Desiree at Scotty’s Castle in Grapevine Canyon. She had completed the climb just like we had trained for it; strong. I’m sure she was not entirely happy with the hill training that I put us both through this season. This afternoon at the halfway point in Desiree’s 108 mile task it looked like Goat Trail hill repeats, Stevens Pass punishment, and finally a Chipmunk Canyon primer in the Eastern Sierra Nevada made today’s climbing task just another afternoon ride for her. She must be back at The Furnace Creek Ranch by now. I’m confident that she made it just fine.
I need to concentrate on myself for now. I had better get off of the bike and gather my focus. This is the first of three breaks off of the bike on the descent from Hell’s Gate. My hands, legs and arms are freezing up tight and the shivering is making it difficult to stay on the road. Random thoughts run through my mind during the brief stops in the dark; a recollection of today’s easy climb up Grapevine Canyon and past Scotty’s Castle to the border crossing; a rolling conversation with a Furnace Creek 508 veteran who eventually disappeared into the heat of midday at the Nevada Highway 95 turn point; the awesome sight of Ubehebe Crater and the terrible road surface on that stage.
Finally the road flattens out and I tell myself that it’s time to pedal. There’s no response. I tell myself again, “It’s time to pedal!” No response. There’s an obvious disconnect between my brain and my body. After a few tries my legs complete a couple of shaky revolutions. The pain is excruciating on each pedal stroke and I’m struggling to find any cadence that works.
After what seemed like hours of slowly weaving down this road to nowhere, I can barely make out a demoralizing cluster of lights glimmering in the distance. From here, mired in my own private Hell, it appears that the lights are unreachable. I think that I could be finished and I can almost hear that cluster of lights laughing at my misfortune.
Fumbling my way off of the bike to walk it off and to think for a while, I talk myself into enjoying the moment. Completely alone in the dark here in the heart of Death Valley, I can feel the Funeral Mountains looking down on me from the east. Above the landscape and off in the western sky, the moon is skimming through a transparent veil of high cirrus clouds. From below sea level, looking out of my place in Hell I can see the sun shinning brightly on the surface of the moon. What happened to the heat of the day? I had not considered just how quickly the desert turns from friend to foe. I feel so abandoned by the sun’s light and warmth that dissipated as quickly as a wisp of smoke in the wind. The desert surrounds me with a deep silence interrupted only by the occasional sounds of small groups of riders whizzing past me at incredible speeds; more demoralization.
As I walk along, my teeth are no longer chattering but I am unable to stop my body from shivering. A couple of hiccups later I donate all of the liquid left in my nauseous stomach to the desert; my shivering stops and I feel better knowing that some small parched creature of the night may discover happiness in my misfortune. I feel good enough to tell a passing support vehicle that I’m doing fine and I’ll make it back to Furnace Creek. It’s obvious to me that I was not very convincing. They circle back around a couple of times to give me an opportunity to change my mind. The support on this ride has been fantastic and I appreciate their concern. But, there’s no way I’m going to get swept up by a support van. Certainly not after all I’ve been through to get this far. I have too much invested in this effort to quit now. I am going to ride to the finish on my bike or I am going to walk the rest of the way. I will finish!
Back on the bike the short walk and the desert donation have had a small effect on my ability to pedal again. A few more small groups of riders pass me and I can hear some of them discuss my predicament. My snail’s pace and unsteady wobbling down the road is a dead giveaway. Most of their encouraging words are absorbed in the silence of the valley. One passing rider yells back to me. The words that I hear are, “You’re almost there. Only thirty miles to go.” Did he say, “Only Thirty miles to go?” Did I hear that right?
The far off demoralizing cluster of lights that I saw earlier must be Furnace Creek after all. I don’t remember those now unreachable thirty miles from earlier this morning. All I can remember is the 17 miles of a super fast pace line from the ranch all the way to the Stovepipe Wells turnoff. Where in Hell is the Stovepipe Wells turnoff? How is it possible that there are thirty more miles to go? I hate that cluster of glimmering lights and I am angry at the thought of thirty miles to go. Telling myself that anger is counter productive I ignore the distant lights and just fix my eyes to the road and pedal. I think that the passing rider must be out of his mind with exhaustion. I am sure that one of us is delirious; at this moment however, I’m not sure which one of us it is.
Soon after I left my “thirty miles to go” math problem unsolved in the desert, the answer reveals itself on a Death Valley National Park information sign smiling at me from the side of the road. It says, “Furnace Creek ¼ Mile.” It wasn’t, “thirty miles to go.” The passing rider must have said, “three miles to go.” I guess hypothermia can affect hearing too.
Just ahead the dim lights of the Furnace Creek Ranch give way to the finish line tent set up at the gate. I limp across the line at 14 hours and 9 minutes. My beautiful wife Desiree is there to meet me with a smile and a hug. After I hand her my bike and take off my shoes, we slowly make our way back to our room. I have accustomed myself to never ending ride segments during the day today and the final hotel stage was nearly as difficult as the first stage earlier this morning. But with Desiree’s humor, help, and encouragement, this is definitely the most satisfying moment of the past 14 hours.