It’s been about a month since the JDRF ride in Death Valley. The journey this year started the night before the trip, with a tickle in my throat and a churn in my stomach. I looked at Sandy – “I think I’m getting sick.”
“That’ll be different,” she replied, “you’ve never done this ride while you were sick.”
Last year’s ride was about similarities (see that blog post: The Amazing Sameness of the Second Year) – this year was about differences.
It started about the same – up at 4:30 AM to catch a flight – but this time to Chicago, not to Denver like the last two years. This time without Kevin, my roommate for the last three years and the one who got me involved in this crazy annual ride to raise money for a great cause. And also this time without Mark, who was our riding companion during training and was our honorary third roommate last year. Different – and I missed those guys.
The flights to Chicago and Vegas were smooth and on time. As we boarded the bus to Death Valley, we saw some familiar faces and made some new friends. Michael and Danny were carrying what looked like violin cases but turned out to be ukuleles – they had the whole bus rockin’ all the way to the Valley. Different.
When we got to the ranch, many of our rooms weren’t ready for us – another first. So we stood in the heat and chatted and waited. We found our bikes and bike bags and waited. We drank water, told jokes and waited. We made new friends, greeted old ones, and showed people where their bikes were.And waited.
Finally, after a couple of hours in the hot sun, we got our room keys, got changed out of our sweaty clothes and into our bike gear, and headed out for our annual first venture into the desert.From the start, two great guys joined us. Joel, from Champagne, IL, who was Michael’s roommate – and who is likely now a permanent member of the central Indiana team – and John, from northern California. Turns out that John is 76 and was just diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes a year ago – the oldest known person to be diagnosed with Type 1. Despite that, he proved himself to be a heck of a rider and a great guy to ride with.
With these two energetic guys, we stretched our first ride into a few extra miles past our usual stops at the Borax mine and ranger residences. Then we rode in a brisk pace line back to the ranch – exhilarating!After dinner, it was off to bed early… tired from the long day and the heat and still not feeling healthy.
I awoke on Friday morning with a pretty sore and froggy throat. Tony (my roommate this year, and a pretty decent sub for Kevin) and I decided to get breakfast early and then ride up to Zabriskie Point before the mandatory safety meeting. This turned out to be a great decision for several reasons. First, there were virtually no cars on the road. Second, we got to watch the sunrise and the moon set as we climbed up the road. And third, the only inhabitants at Zabriskie were a small herd of photographers. They stood silently alongside their tripods in the cool morning air. In the pre-dawn hours the desert was cool and extremely peaceful. What a great time to be there!We rode back down (5 miles – all down hill) and stopped to pick up the Jeep we’d rented to for the rest of the day. Then to the safety meeting…
The safety meeting took a particular focus this year – hydration. While it’s always a problem in the desert, it was especially so this year. They were expecting record high temps and nearly half of the 350 riders were new to Death Valley. Last year they pulled more than 100 riders from the course who were either too hot or too tired to finish. So the message of the day was “Make a B-line to the pee line.” Meaning, if you weren’t peeing frequently on the ride, you weren’t hydrating enough.They also dropped hints that if the temps stayed high, it was possible they would change the course.
That would be different.We heard from the national coaches, the ride organizer, the ride doctor and the National Park Service. All had similar messages – hydrate, hydrate, hydrate – along with the usual instructions to ride single file and to be safe on the roads. And as usual, they managed to scare us.
Most of the group then went on the scheduled tune up ride (this year ONLY to Golden Canyon, no riders were allowed to go to Zabriskie – different again – and one more reason Tony and I were happy to have gone earlier). Tony, Danny and I headed out in the Jeep.When I picked up the Jeep, I talked to the rental guy about where we should go. His first question was: “Do you want to go see the rocks?” This question referred to the rocks of Racetrack Playa. These strange rocks seem to move themselves across the hard-packed desert floor, leaving an unlikely trail behind. Seemed pretty cool, and was the destination I’d had in mind when I reserved the Jeep a few weeks earlier.
Richard (the rental dude) told me Racetrack Playa was about 80 miles away… the first 50+ on paved road, the last 27 on “gravel.” The rental dude indicated it would take about an hour on the paved portion and then about 1½ hours on the “gravel” portion. Tony, Danny and I agreed this would be our target destination, but we’d see how we felt once we found the road.We covered the first 50 miles in about an hour with only one stop at a roadside pit toilet. After a short, pungent visit here, Tony vowed to never enter such a place again. Then we found the road to the Racetrack.
“Gravel” would be a generous description of the road. It was very, very rough – dirt and gravel and much of it washboard. Rental Richard told me that they grade the road occasionally, pushing the loose rock to the edges. He warned that if another vehicle approached, not to try passing on the loose stuff, but to stop and wait for the other car to pass. On the way out, we saw only two other vehicles, so we didn’t have to exercise this procedure much.We reached the Playa after an hour and a half of bouncing and shaking our way down the rough, rough road. The Playa itself was fascinating, with dozens of rocks with trails that left us scratching our heads about how they could possibly move. Also this was the most desert looking of places I’ve been in Death Valley.
We made the drive back (long, bumpy, dusty, rough road again) and stopped at Ubehebe crater, formed by an explosion of steam from a volcano. Pretty cool sight, and very, very windy there. We also stopped briefly at Scotty’s Castle (maybe a story for next year) and then made our way back to the ranch. Good day… but a very different experience.Like Mark and Kevin not being with us this year, Lisa also had to stay behind. The upside of this was that it opened a spot for Mike, Sam’s husband, to join us for the ride. Their daughter, Bailey, is Type 1 and it was cool that they both could do the ride for her.
We learned that while we bouncing down a bumpy road, Mike and Sam drove Michael and Joel up to Dante’s view so they could ride their bikes back down. Dante’s view is about 25 miles uphill from the ranch and about a mile above sea level. So they got to see a spectacular view and then coast down the 25 miles back to the ranch. Very cool… and different.We also learned that a surprise awaited Bob. He was doing his tenth ride in Death Valley and had also raised more than $100,000 himself over those years. Bob’s wife, Annette, also joined him this year. In celebration, his two sons, Chris and Patrick, made arrangements to come to Death Valley to surprise Bob and to volunteer during the ride. I have rarely seen Bob as happy as when his sons arrived. And after spending some time with these two fine men, it’s no wonder why. You have a great family, Bob! To top that, if that’s actually possible, Bob got a podium finish for his fundraising total for this year. Wow – great job!
After dinner and the usual talks and awards, the announcement came – they would be altering the ride course for Saturday.Instead of 50 miles out, with a seven-mile climb to the mid-point, the course would be 25 miles out and back. For those that wished to do 100 miles, we could do the course twice. This made a lot of sense logistically – if someone was tired after 50 miles, it would be easy to stop because they would be back at the starting point. And no one would be more than 25 miles from the start, making a return trip much easier if you had to be driven in. While this made a lot of sense, it was still a bit of a disappointment for those of us who had trained to ride the big hill.
This was going to be very different.At our team meeting that night, we reminded ourselves why we were there– it wasn’t about the miles or the climb, but about finding a cure – and began preparations for an early start for ride day.
The alarm went off at 4:30 AM, my throat still froggy but no other symptoms. After filling up on food and fluids at breakfast, we made our way to the start line. The day started clear and cool with a beautiful sunrise.Our team started in the second-fastest group and headed up the hill out of the ranch. We stayed basically together until the stop at Badwater, 19 miles from the start. This section of road is built over the hills formed by the erosion of the sides of the mountain, so there are a lot of ups and downs. At the low points, it actually felt cold in the early morning air.
After a long stop at Badwater for a bathroom break, a little food and water refills we headed out. The group split up a bit, as different ride strategies started to emerge. Some wanted to get as many miles in as possible while it was still cool, with the opportunity to stop early if it got too hot. My strategy was to set a steady pace and finish all 100 miles.We made the turnaround at mile 25, noting the California Highway Patrol car parked just beyond the rest stop to discourage any riders from venturing further up the road. We headed back to Badwater and re-grouped for the 18 miles of ups and downs back to the start. Again, we spread out as some set a faster pace than others. We arrived as a group back at the start, checked-in with the ride crew, got food and water and headed back out.
For much of the first 50 miles, we had the benefit of the shade of the mountain on the east side of the valley. Shade was a luxury we aren’t used to on this ride. The second trip out to Badwater didn’t have that advantage, though, and was in full sun. Normally, this is the first section we ride while fresh and excited in the early morning. We were now facing it for a second time and at midday. To make matters worse, we were also riding into a headwind. This meant that there was no relief to be found in the downhills – they had to be pedaled and there was no cool morning air at the bottom.The road to Badwater has mile makers starting with mile 1, making it easy to monitor progress and to know exactly how far it is to the next stop. In the full sun, with a headwind and 50 miles in my legs, and no relief from the downhills, I looked for a mile marker, hopeful that I was getting close to the stop. Mile 6. Rats… Badwater was at mile 18. I realized I needed to stop looking at the signs and just focus on the riding.
Breathing hot, dry air through my mouth was like sand paper on my sore throat. Drinking Gatorade and water from my bottles was both for hydration and to relieve my throat.John and I got a bit ahead of the group by the time we reached Badwater. John was worried that he might start cramping, and so asked if I would go with him to keep him moving. We headed out for the turnaround once more. When we got there, the volunteers said we were riders 67 and 68 that made it there a second time. We got cold towels around our necks and a nice misting of water to cool us off. Joel caught up to us at this stop and the three of us headed out together.
We returned to Badwater for a short break where I begged a Diet Pepsi from one of the volunteers. Coke/Pepsi is a great recovery drink and this can was fished from the bottom of an ice-filled cooler – sooo marvelously cold.We headed out for the last 18 miles with a small group. A short distance up the road, one of the riders started cramping badly. We stopped for a short time with him, but he urged us to go on as he worked out the cramps in his legs. Joel, John and I continued on.
A coach joined us for this last section of the ride – more ups and downs and now with more than 80 miles in our legs. It was no-kiddin’ hot, too – my bike thermometer showed 111 F, the hottest I’ve seen during a Death Valley ride. We stopped at Golden Canyon briefly to re-group and then headed out for the last two miles.We re-grouped one last time at the top of the last mile and then coasted in together. This last mile is always emotional for me. It represents the culmination of thousands of training miles, thousands of dollars raised, the effort of the ride itself and the myriad emotions of the weekend. Ultimately, it’s a huge sense of accomplishment and relief. I’ve done it. Another 100-mile Death Valley ride completed. More funds raised for a great cause.
When we got back to the ranch, Mike, Bob and Danny were already there. They had decided to end their rides early, given the heat. Sam, Michael and Tony rode in shortly after us – all managing to ride 100 miles.At dinner that night we heard a ride re-cap and more awards were given. The course changes seemed to have helped, with fewer riders needing to be pulled from the course and no serious medical issues. Most of the riders liked the change, not only because it allowed more mileage options, but also because we were able to see a lot more riders throughout the day.
I had mixed emotions about the change. While it was probably safer for new riders and better logistically for the ride crew, riding the same stretch of road four times gets monotonous. Also, the section of road that we rode had lots of points of interest – Artist’s Palette, Golden Canyon, Devil’s Golf Course and Badwater. This meant there were lots of cars and cyclists going both ways on the road, which made it very busy. Given the success, though, this may be a difference we continue to see in future rides.After dinner it was off to bed… this time tired from the ride in the heat. Sunday morning emerged and I still had a frog in my throat, but now it was much more sore, too. I sought out Advil from my teammates, not for pain from the ride but for my throat. Once I got back into a more humid environment, my sinuses erupted with a full-on infection. Glad I didn’t have all that while I was riding…
As always, thank you for your donations, encouragement, prayers and support – those echoed in my mind as I pedaled all those miles. I couldn’t have done it without you!While this year was one of differences, like prior years the tears are never far below the surface – my friends Bob and Danny tell me that is a normal part of the recovery process.
And so, another unforgettable ride in the desert. Will I go back next year? Well, differences and similarities aside, there are still more sights to see and we still haven’t found a cure…