This being my fourth year to ride in Death Valley, the year has passed with an odd combination of reluctance and complacency. Although we signed up for the ride back in February and started our training rides in March, along about June or July I began to have second thoughts.
The most frequent question I get from others is “why?” Why? Why am I doing this? Why WOULD I do this… again? And I feel reluctance to go through with it again. And then procrastinate to start my fund-raising. This leads to complacency – I’ve done it before… I can to it again. But can I really raise the required $4000 again? Do I really want to ask my friends and family to support a charity that I have no personal, direct connection to? Will they still give? Nevertheless, like past years – through the friendship of a great group of riding friends and your extraordinary generosity in support of this cause – I found myself in Death Valley again on an October weekend with the moving realization that there is nowhere else – nowhere – I would rather be. The people, the scenery, the heat, the ride, the setting, the process of getting there, and most importantly the cause – that is, everything about it – make for an unforgettable weekend in spite of the fact that I’ve done it all before.
The weekend followed a similar schedule as prior years. We left early on Thursday morning and headed to Vegas. The group ended up divided among flights, busses and rental cars and we didn’t really get together until we were in the Valley. The bus ride is always a good way to get to know the other riders and share experiences of preparing for the ride and stories of past rides. Many on my bus were first-timers, including some from Europe, who had lots of questions about what to expect. The questions started with the stop at Wal*Mart (“what do we need to buy?”) and continued all the way to the final downhill into DV and Furnace Creek Ranch (“is this about as steep as the long hill during the ride?” Well… no…)
The Ranch was slow again this year at getting our rooms ready. Luckily Kevin’s and my room was ready when Kevin got there on the first bus, well ahead of me. So when I got there, I could go to our room and get changed into cooler clothes. Sam and Danny weren’t so lucky. Their rooms were not ready and wouldn’t be until about 5 o’clock that evening. We spent our day getting reacquainted with the other riders, finding our bikes and gear, and enjoying a couple of beers at the 19th hole of the lowest golf course in the world. Since the team couldn’t get in their rooms, we didn’t do our usual Thursday kick-off ride. Sam’s weekend got off to a bit of rough start… once she got into her room after the long, long wait, she got the uncomfortable surprise that her roommate (whom she didn’t know) brought along her husband. Obviously this wasn’t acceptable at an event like this where you have to have a roommate and often that person is a stranger. JDRF got the situation sorted out and Sam ended up with a single room in the end. Nice! After we got ourselves settled, it was time for dinner – the usual hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill in the courtyard with fabulous scenery surrounding us.
After dinner, a small group of us piled into a van a drove up to Zabriskie Point to have a look at the night sky in the darkness of the desert. I’d been to Zabriskie the three years prior, but never at night. It was really amazing to stand there with the only illumination coming from the billions of stars overhead – just enough light to make out shapes and not fall over anyone or anything – and being able to see the arc of the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon above us. After a little while contemplating the night sky, we headed back down the hill and off to bed for an early start to Friday.
We learned last year that the ride organizers, along with the California Highway Patrol and National Park Service, weren’t allowing the Friday warm-up ride to go to Zabriskie. Many of us wanted to go back up there instead of the planned destination of Golden Canyon. So we got up early on Friday, got in the first group for breakfast, and then headed out for Zabriskie before the mandatory safety meeting. We rode the five miles up to Zabriskie without incident (except my chain kept slipping… more on that later) and then enjoyed the cool morning and scenery and took the opportunity to take some photos of the group in the morning light. We headed back down to the ranch and to the safety meeting. This year’s focus was on hydration (as always) and making sure we were taking in enough salt to replenish our bodies during the ride. Pickles, pretzels, trail mix and electrolyte tabs were on the menu for the big ride on Saturday, along with water, Gatorade, Clif Bars and sandwiches. They managed to scare us with the talk and, although it was pretty hot (close to 100), there was no mention of course adjustments. It was clear it would be the full course, including the seven-mile climb to Jubilee Pass.
After the meeting, while most of the other riders went on the tune-up ride to Golden Canyon, we rented a Jeep for the day. Sam, Danny, Kevin and I drove up to Titus Canyon on part paved and part gravel road, with the gravel part being a series of climbs and switchbacks to get to the canyon. Pretty cool but a little unnerving, climbing up a steep and curvy dirt road with no guard rails. Once there, the canyon itself is only about 20 feet wide (e.g. a slot canyon) and was pretty neat to see. We also saw a couple of ghost towns along the way. We enjoyed a quick picnic lunch in the canyon and headed back toward the ranch. We stopped at the NP Visitor Center and then drove 25 miles up to Dante’s View. The View is more than 5,000 feet above the desert floor and offers great views of Death Valley and portions of the ride route. It was the first time Kevin or I had been up there and it offered a great perspective of the park and Valley. Danny told us that his brother-in-law John (he’s a really nice guy, by the way) and national coach Mike Clark had ridden their bikes up here a couple of days before. Sounds like an adventure to add to my bucket list…
We returned to the ranch in time for pasta dinner (important to carb-load before the ride). At dinner, we found John Oakes, the 76-year-old, type-1 rider who rode with us last year. Although we have exchanged e-mails during the year, it was great to see him again in person. After dinner, the awards were given to the top recruiter (yellow jersey) and top fund-raiser (green jersey). While these two awards are at the heart of the success of the ride – more riders and more money are the key enablers of the event – the top fundraiser this year was most moving. He was an 80+ year-old, 40+-year type-1 diabetic from Cincinnati who had ridden at Death Valley for the first time last year. We don’t often get to hear from these jersey winners, but this year the green jersey recipient decided to speak. His words really resonated with me. He described this ride by saying there were a few major events in life that really have a lasting impact. His first two were perhaps common and predictable – marriage and child birth. But his third was this ride last year. This bike ride I’ve done four times now and can’t explain why. His short speech spoke volumes about the personal impact of the event. A charity bike ride in the desert is the third biggest event in an 80-year life? Really? Really. This ride made such an impression on him that he was able to personally raise more than $50,000 for the event and to return to ride again this year. Wow… just wow. If a type-1 diabetic octogenarian raising $50k to return to ride his bike in the desert for a second time – and declaring it the third most important event in a long life – doesn’t inspire you to ask “why not?” I can’t imagine what would. I should just end the story here…
But there is far more to the story. Impressive as that single effort was, there were roughly 330 other riders there this year for the very same reasons. Maybe not winning the green jersey or giving a speech about it, but I assure you their reasons were the same nevertheless. In total, that relatively small number riders in Death Valley alone raised more than $1.2 million for JDRF and to find a cure for diabetes. That’s what it’s all about and why we were all there.
After a couple more short speeches, it was off to bed in prep for an early morning start for the ride on Saturday.
Saturday started clear and cool with a very early morning breakfast. Sam’s challenges continued – when she was getting her bike ready, she found that she had a flat tire before the ride even started! Thankfully, the bike crew was able to quickly get it fixed. Once we had our gear ready and sun screen slathered, we lined up in groups at the start, sang the National Anthem, and got ourselves ready to get underway. We started in the second group, as usual, and made our way out of the ranch and up the first, mile-long hill. We turned down the road to Badwater in exhilaration at being underway and riding downhill in the cool morning air. About two miles in we came upon a crash that had happened just a few minutes before. We didn’t see what happened, but learned later that it took out several riders and destroyed one bike. Not something you want to see early in the ride.
We pedaled on to Badwater and took a quick bathroom break and got the requisite salty snacks before heading out. We saw fellow Indiana rider and DV first-timer, Mark, at this stop, who decided to head out quickly on his own. Kevin followed (no one should ride alone) with a promise to re-group later. We also found John at Badwater and he joined our group as we headed out. You’ll recall that John is one of the oldest (if not THE oldest) first-diagnosis diabetics. Unfortunately he’d suffered some complications from diabetes throughout the year and hadn’t ridden much or very far. His goal was to make Mormon Point and then turn back, for a 68-mile total. We rode out at a steady pace (John called me Steady-Eddie during this stretch) with a goal of completing the long climb and full 100 miles. We caught up to Mark (who was taking a photo of the dreaded sun/shade line, indicating the end of the shade for the day) and Kevin who re-joined our group.
We made Mormon Point in good time with everyone feeling strong. We used the porta-potties (and Kevin inadvertently helped a woman rider understand the importance of locking the porta-potty door), again got some salty snacks, said good-bye to John as he returned to the start, and headed out.
Those who have read my past posts or have done this ride know that the climbing actually starts at Mormon Point. Although it is only 11 miles to the next stop, the steepest part of the ride is also in this short section. As we head out we began to face the first wind of the day and it was a head wind. This makes the climbing, and especially the steep climb, particularly difficult. Since we didn’t do this part of the ride last year, I’d forgotten how difficult it could be with the combination of wind and hills. We couldn’t stay together on the climbs and ended up rolling into Ashford Mill a few minutes apart.
After a short stop for food and water, we started out for the big hill. Again, those who have been following for a while know that this is a seven mile climb to Jubilee Pass, the mid-point of the ride. With 40+ miles in our legs, and the fatigue of the windy preceding miles, it’s a tough slog up the hill. As usual we see riders coming down who have already summited and are on their way back. While slowly climbing, I recall that while riding up to Zabriskie the day before, my chain wanted to slip when it was on one particular cog on the rear cassette. Unfortunately, this happens to be the one I prefer to ride in. As we climbed, my chain repeatedly slipped and then came completely off. There are few things worse than throwing your chain while climbing – it stops your progress and it is really tough to re-start – but I have to stop, put my chain back on then ride down a little ways to get clipped in and then turn back to the uphill. As always, this is just a tough, tough climb in the desert heat with tired legs. Sam passed me while I was fixing my chain problem and stayed consistently ahead of me from then on. I ride along with other riders until we see the 1-mile mark for the rest stop. This is without question the longest mile of the ride. We see the rest stop which, as usual, is on the opposite side of the road, intended to be a stop on the way down. Knowing this, I pedal for the summit without stopping and find Sam. Kevin arrives shortly after and we take a few photos at the summit and head back to the rest stop. After a short break with icy towels around our necks, bottle refills and snacks, we head out.
Many things about this ride are hard to understand. One of those is the emotions that I experience as I come down this hill. Tears well up as I realize that I have made it to the top and to the half-way point and I am now on the way back to the start. What a great sense of accomplishment and relief.
Riding down takes serious concentration and I grip the handlebars and curl my toes tightly to hang on as I speed down this long decent. As much as we would all like for this to be a carefree downhill, it just isn’t. The road isn’t very smooth and speeds climb to nearly 40 mph. The long distance and the vibrations from the road surface cause my hands and feet to go numb and I end up wishing for it to be over soon. We coast almost the entire way back into Ashford Mill. As we are finishing the last few yards, Sam calls out that her tire has gone flat. This is the second flat of the ride for her. We pull into Ashford Mill and one of the great JDRF coaches immediately pulls off her wheel, pulls her tube, replaces it, calls for a pump and gets her back on the road. Impressive.
The dreaded headwind during the 11 miles up to Ashford Mill is now a tremendous tailwind. I have never experienced this sensation on a Death Valley ride. We maintain a 20+ mph pace all the way back to Mormon Point with little effort. This is a great, great relief and just an awesome repayment of the effort we put into the wind going the other way. We pull into Mormon Point, refill our bottles, get pretzels and pickles and head out again.
The next 16 miles go in and out of the mountainous terrain in what seems like an endless repetition of loops. This is the longest section of the ride without a stop. My bike thermometer shows over 100 F. With about 3 miles to go I predict we are on the last of these loops. Alas, I was wrong and we probably did as many as three more. Finally we see the 1-mile marker for Badwater and ride in for a much needed break.
We grab food – some are actually drinking the pickle juice – and water and they also have frozen ice pops (e.g. those things that are like frozen kool-aid in a plastic sleeve). These, along with more icy towels, are awesome to cool us down. I also bum a Coke from a volunteer (my usual request at this point in the ride) which is also terrifically cold and refreshing.
We head out of Badwater for the last 18 miles to the ranch. This section goes up and down over the mountainous terrain rather than in an out. We rode this section four times on the shortened course last year, so it seems familiar and predictable. As we pedal along, I suddenly get a very, very bad cramp in my groin muscle that feels like an electric shock through my inner thigh. I abruptly stop pedaling and another rider passes as I groan, trying to exorcise the cramp. He asks if I am OK and I am only able to utter “cramp.” I keep going and work the cramp out as we pedal to the last stop before the ranch. I stop, use the unbelievably hot porta potty, get some of those delicious salty snacks, Gatorade and water, re-group with Sam and Kevin and head out.
The hills are tough at this late stage of the course and we separate a bit. I make Golden Canyon, about 2 miles from the turn to the ranch and stop to wait for Sam and Kevin. A JDRF coach is there watching riders go by. I let him know I am fine and just waiting for my teammates and chat for a few minutes with him. Sam and Kevin pull in, catch their breath and we head out. These last couple of miles are pretty steep with a really steep section at the intersection with the main road. I ride up to the turn and wait so that we can all ride in together. Sam pulls up and then Simone from Memphis and then Kevin. The four of us coast down the last mile to the finish.
Similar to the downhill after Jubilee Pass, this last mile is an emotional one for me. Again, tears well up as I know that I will make it… literally we don’t have to pedal until we are back at the ranch. This downhill is less steep than Jubilee and is smoother, so much less anxiety and much more jubilation as we finish the ride!
We ride into the ranch to cheers and cow bells. We check in with medical (a required stop) and return our bikes to the truck. We get an ice cream bar and water and cool down, knowing we are done and just ecstatic that we have finished the full course.
After a quick shower and a beer, we go back out to watch the remaining riders come. I find Danny (who was feeling sick after breakfast and not sure he was going to ride) and John and learn that they both went to Mormon Point and back – an impressive 68 miles in the hot desert. We see Mark come in and later would hear about his epic challenges with cramping during the ride – and yet he still managed to ride all 100 miles. At last we see the Highway Patrol leading the coaches back to the start. The 2012 JDRF Death Valley Ride to Cure Diabetes is over.
We have dinner and a few more awards. The spirit award goes to a rider who gave up his bike to a first-time rider who was involved in that early crash, allowing the first-timer to go on to finish the full ride. Very cool.
It’s then to bed early with a 4:30 alarm to get on the bus back to Vegas and then flights back to Indy. Mark, Danny and I are on the same bus and flight, so we stay together and chat about all the experiences of the day before. We each learn something about the others and realize that this ride isn’t easy for anyone.
During the past couple of weeks since we’ve been back, I’ve told my story many times to those who ask me about it – I’m always happy to do so.
Thank you for sharing in my ride again this year, I truly appreciate your generous support. I may have been the one pedaling over the miles, but I carried your thoughts, prayers and support with me on each mile, and I would not have made it without you. Thank you!
As I said when I started this story… it is hard to explain why we do this. It is an amazing, fulfilling, exhausting and inspiring experience. And right now, it is impossible to imagine not going back.