Levi’s Gran Fondo Final Training Ride Report

Yesterday I did this ride.

Now, a few things about yesterday.

  • Due to some commute traffic excitement, I ended up commuting home by bike on Friday. I always, always rest on Fridays because my legs need one or, before a super strenuous ride, two days to rest completely for optimal performance. Even a super-easy slow ride seems to have a very tangible impact in the next day’s performance.
  • The weather was really marginal: thunderstorms and stiff winds, accompanied by the occasional wind gust for excitement. It’s late September; that’s what I’d expect. Unfortunately it coincided with the final peak training ride for the Levi’s Gran Fondo I’m doing on October 6. 
  • I’ve been dealing with iliac artery compression in my left leg for the last year and a half. I could write a whole post about this, but the upshot is that when my heart rate gets high, I experience excruciating, crippling pain in my left quad and calf, far beyond anything I’ve ever known from exercise before. It’s like an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10. If I try to push through, the leg weakens until I can’t pedal anymore. 

I’ve been training for this Gran Fondo with my friend John Jester, who’s gotten super strong and fast the last couple years. Now, with my leg, I can’t exert myself to chase people who are faster unless I want to experience excruciating agony. It’s incredibly frustrating. Anyway, John and I have been training together, and yesterday we met up for the last of the hard training rides before the Gran Fond itself.

We’ve ridden up Squak Mountain a bunch of times the last few weeks; its sustained grade and length make it a perfect training hill. Yesterday as we started climbing, a thunderstorm hit with torrential rain. I’d brought a jacket (the best on-bike rain jacket I’ve ever owned, bar none) and stopped to put it on. This was an on-again, off-again day, as it was in the mid-60s, making wearing too many clothes an issue also.

But after that, I struggled. I went slower and slower as my leg failed. When I finally got to the top and saw John completing multiple laps of the top loop, I felt such deep shame at my weakness mixed with misery, frustration, desperation, and hopelessness that I wanted to give up. I wanted to get off my bike and lie down and cry.

I kept riding, but after that, it was an endless slog of misery. I feel bad for John, who had a strong ride and had to keep waiting for me; I wasn’t even very good company. It took everything in me to just keep going. I finished, slow and miserable. I did cry when I got home.

I’m not optimistic about the Gran Fondo.

Video of RAMROD

Day’s Verse:
But those who wait upon God get fresh strength.
They spread their wings and soar like eagles…

Isaiah 40:27-31

One of the other riders in our group, Blake, brought a video camera along on RAMROD. Here’s his compilation video, which runs 3 minutes and does an excellent job capturing the feel of the ride. I make a few appearances. Look for black & white kit and helmet streamers.

Edited to add: There was another course photographer on the way. Here’s a (fairly dramatically overexposed) picture he got of me.
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RAMROD Ride Report

Day’s Verse:
For even young people tire and drop out, young folk in their prime stumble and fall.
But those who wait upon God get fresh strength.

Isaiah 40:27-31

Well, here it is, two days after RAMROD, and I still haven’t written about my experience yet. What to say? I’ve been thinking about this ride since January. I trained for it intensively for 16 weeks before the ride, and rode with an eye towards preparing even before that. In that time, I’ve eaten innumerable Clif bars, drunk endless bottles of Ironman Perform (lemon-lime), consumed uncountable pounds of pasta and oatmeal, and pedaled millions of strokes and thousands of miles. It’s been one of the pre-ride rainiest seasons anybody can remember, and several times I rode soaking wet and cold, refusing to let bad weather derail my training. I’ve spent so Saturdays away, Ian has an entire Saturday routine that doesn’t include me.

So you could say that I’ve been keenly anticipating this ride for some time. Yes. Of course, everybody’s fear was that it would rain, but as Thursday approached, it became increasingly clear that we would have excellent weather: clear, sunny, and warm but not too hot.

Wednesday evening, Dad and I ate yet another pasta dinner together at Mom and Dad’s house. We packed the car and laid out everything we wanted beforehand. And at about 8:00 pm, I went to bed. We planned on leaving the house by 3:45 am (and that means getting up by 3:15 am), which is early enough that it’s hard to decide whether it qualifies as “extremely late tonight” or “outrageously early tomorrow morning.” The previous couple mornings I had prepared for this hideous wake-up time activity by getting up ever-earlier, and Wednesday woke up at 4:00 am. This meant that when I turned the light out at 8:00 pm, although I was excited for the ride and it was still light out, I actually fell asleep fairly easily.

My body woke me up at 3:00 am on Thursday morning. This worked well. I put on my kit, to which I’d already affixed my number (one less thing to forget), and made myself yet another bowl of oatmeal. It was so early, Carmel didn’t even know what to do. After breakfast, we loaded the last few things into Dad’s car and hit the road just about on time. The sun had not yet risen, and we enjoyed the benefit of highly-responsive stoplights that changed in our favor as soon as we pulled up. It took us almost exactly an hour to reach the start line in Enumclaw.

Of course, we needn’t have hurried — with 17 people in our group, it took the usual inexplicably long time to get us all together and ready to ride. About 5:30 am, we were all there, provisioned, bathroomed, and ready to roll. Here’s a picture of some of us waiting at the start line.

As we left, we passed through a narrow start lane where volunteers removed one of two detachable numbered tags from our jersey numbers. This was their way of counting which people had started the ride. When we finished, they took the matching tag and presumably paired it with the one they obtained at the start, to ensure all the riders made it off the course safely.

Then we rode. We rode in a very long “paceline” — that is, people in the front rotated through, taking turns pulling. After a certain amount down in the line, that system fell apart and people just rode without rotating to the front. We rode fast, averaging about 21 mph for the first 30 miles. I took my turn pulling a couple times, and then decided to let stronger, faster people do the work. At one point the group got split up, and I chased down the clump of people ahead of me, riding in the high 20s for sustained periods. When we pulled into the stop in Eatonville* at mile 30-ish, I decided that was plenty of that; we still had all the climbing left to do, and I needed my legs to last another 120 miles. However, the route was quite beautiful, all these rolling green hills, the sun rising against Mt. Rainier, the air cool and fresh and clean… it was heavenly. Here’s a picture of the group very early on.

Here’s a picture one of my riding buddies took at the rest stop in Eatonville.

Just before Eatonville, one of my friends — Heather — had the misfortune to have a mechanical that the wrench at the stop couldn’t fix. Her official RAMROD was over at that point, but she did manage to redeem the ride by getting her bike fixed elsewhere and doing the last part of the ride.

After Eatonville, we left in a large but reasonable-sized group, but fairly quickly split into increasingly small groups. This was good. I let the fast people go off and be fast (and they were; they finished 100 people ahead of me, and I only ever saw them once on the rest of the ride), and rode with a group that went a pace I could sustain. I pulled a fair amount for the next 25 miles and felt fresh, strong, and overall great. The sun continued to rise, giving us fabulous lakeside reflections of wooded hills lit by morning sunlight with clear, light blue skies. One of the guys I rode with, Blake, had a video camera that he kept whipping out. I hope I get to see some of the footage, because it was really beautiful. No pictures of that stage, sadly. GPS battery held out through this point, astonishing me.

At the rest stop around mile 55, I looked around and realized we’d left a number of my buddies behind, including Dad. We regrouped at the rest stop — which had food that I didn’t eat; I had my own Clif bars, and somehow riding after having eating chocolate croissants sounded terrible. At every opportunity, though, I used port-a-potties and refilled my water. I diligently drank at least 1 bottle per hour, and ate almost one Clif bar per hour, working hard on consuming the recommended nutrients. It really helped, I think, too, even though it felt like I kept constantly choking down more food or pulling out that bottle again. After a while the bottles and cages got so coated with partly-dried sugar stickiness that they started forming some kind of adhesive that made it nearly impossible to remove the bottle from the cage. I had to start rinsing the bottles and cages off, and even then, the problem wasn’t fixed until I got home and used soap on both surfaces.

Back to the ride. After that second rest stop, we gathered up our group — which continued to shrink — and headed into the park. I had to let out a whoop of excitement when we officially passed through the gates into Mt. Rainier National Park, it was just so exciting! As we rolled through, park rangers called to us to slow down and spread out. Then they read out our bib numbers to other people with clipboards. I assume this was to keep “bandits” (non-registered riders) from joining the ride, a practice most strenuously discouraged. I was number 809**, but they read it as 808 initially. I wonder if there were any repercussions for the real number 808…

Entering Mt. Rainier National Park really marked the beginning of the serious climbing. The first big climb was up to Inspiration Point, which people talked about as the road to Paradise. I know Paradise is a place in the park, but I couldn’t help but mentally agree: It felt like a road to paradise. The huge old-growth trees, with the sunlight filtering through; the winding road; the glimpses of the mountain’s snowy peak; the bridges over rivers somewhere far below; it was just wonderful. Partway up, the two guys — Craig and Jay, both people I knew from Earthdreams and previous RTS rides — I was riding with stopped for pictures. All we had were not-very-good cell phone camera pictures, but here’s me with Craig.

We took a short detour for a better view, and the guys took some more pictures. When we pulled back onto the course, we passed Dad, who had apparently been not far behind us and got ahead while we were enjoying the astonishing vistas. The valley was so far down (and we’d ridden that entire way up!), the river down there winding through the trees, with the mountains marching off into the hazy distance… Well, more of the same, but never boring. I couldn’t have accommodated my camera in my pockets, but I wish I had some way of recording some of the panoramas we saw.

When we got to the top of Paradise, after about 20 miles of climbing, there was a water-and-bathroom stop. We peed, refilled bottles, and I saw Dad. He wasn’t feeling too hot, but we took a happy picture anyway. It was so much fun, I could hardly contain myself.

Then we started the descent from Paradise, and it was glorious. The road wasn’t in the best condition, but the views of the mountain in Reflection Lake; the lupines and other wildflowers blooming on the sides; the valleys; and did I mention THE MOUNTAIN?! Holy smokes, it was so fabulous. I know I keep saying that, so I’ll try to move on now. Craig took this picture of me on the way down.

Because of all the views I kept wanting to gaze at, I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the road. I really needed to keep my eyes on the road, too, because it was somewhat winding, the guard rail protecting us from thousand-foot-tumbles wouldn’t stop a child on a trike, and the road had a lot of frost heaves and cracks. I followed Craig’s line, since he’d done RAMROD before and had an idea of where to put himself to avoid the worst of the road (in the oncoming traffic lane, often, but we only saw about 3 cars going the other way, so it was fine). I believe this picture, by one of the official course photographers, was taken on the descent from Paradise, although it may’ve been the next one, coming down Backbone Ridge.

Backbone Ridge was the next climb, and it just didn’t feel like that big of a deal. It was short and sweet, with a good descent that we were able to fly down. I practiced cornering, something I’m generally no good at.

Then we got to the bottom of the climb to Cayuse Pass. I took off my arm warmers and vest (which came off for every climb, and went back on for every descent). Thus far, Craig, Jay, and I had been holding back, saving energy for the climb up Cayuse. When we got to the start of the climb, Jay decided he was going to take off. We waved goodbye to him and took our time, riding at a pace that allowed us to have a (slow, multi-pause-per-thought) conversation. It was so very peaceful and quiet. We hardly saw anybody, bicyclist or motorist.

A bit more than halfway up the 12-mile climb, we came to a much-needed water stop. Cayuse is the steepest climb, and it’s also the third one. By then you’re fairly tired, you’ve been drinking quite a bit, and it had a good number of open, sunny stretches that could’ve been really blistering if it was any hotter. The stop felt good. I rinsed my bottles and cages off for a slight improvement in on-bike bottle extraction, a gain lost not long after as I spilled more sticky energy drink all over. After the halfway stop, Craig and I got separated. I pulled ahead, increasing speed to a whopping 8 mph or so. I got to the top feeling quite good, much less tired than I would’ve imagined. (Don’t get me wrong, I was tired. Just not exhausted.) Jay was waiting at the top, and we then waited for Craig.

When Craig pulled up, he looked pale and unwell. We made him drink a bottle of water with an electrolyte tablet in it, and then we just rested up there for a while. When Craig started perking back up, we began the fabulous 10-mile descent down Cayuse Pass to the lunch stop. Actually, they call it a deli stop, because you eat a sandwich there regardless of what time you arrive. Anyway, we had a great flight down the mountain, and the guys’ superior mass translated into dramatically superior momentum over the distance. However, I caught up with them as they soft-pedaled to the deli stop.

At the deli stop, we saw the fast Earthdreams people! They were just leaving. This was a tad disappointing, because I’d been hoping to ride with them (read: “suck their wheels”) the last 40 miles, which are known to have pretty stiff headwinds most of the way back to Enumclaw. However, I wasn’t about to give up my bathroom, water, and food break just to keep up with those guys, so they went off and finished very early while the rest of us sat around and ate. As we waited, more of our group rolled in, including Dad, so we gathered a good number of people to work together those last long miles. Here’s me and Dad at lunch.

The last miles were the hardest for me. My GPS, which had miraculously held out until about 3 miles after the lunch stop, finally died. I had no way of knowing what time it was, making eating and drinking on schedule impossible; I didn’t know how many miles we had left, making pacing incredibly difficult; I didn’t know my speed; and the wind was fierce. Our Earthdreams crew ended up in a larger group of Lakemont Cycling Club riders and some other miscellaneous people, none of whom we knew. The speed kept vacillating, one minute fast, the next slowing down, so it was impossible to get on somebody’s wheel, even if I’d wanted to — which I didn’t, because I didn’t know any of them. It’s not smart to draft off a rider you don’t know.

In short, I kept having to put on spurts of extra speed to make up gaps in the line that formed as people slowed then sped up. It wasn’t pretty, and I started getting really fatigued. Francis, who I know, filled in a gap for me at one point, and boy did it hurt to grab his wheel and hang on. At that point he told me we had 20 miles left. I just put my head down and soldiered on, refusing to let them drop me even though I was so, so tired. I’m sure that was a nice section of road, but I don’t remember it at all. Just the pain and refusing to give up. Dad, I’m sorry to say, continued to not feel his best, and got dropped somewhere along the way. I was completely unaware of anything beyond the wheel in front of me, so I don’t know when that happened. Turns out we were riding at a pace around 22 to 25 mph, which is why I struggled so hard every time I had to catch up.

Happily for me, after we turned onto the delightfully-named Mud Mountain Road, Francis pulled over for a pit stop. Most of the group continued on, leaving us with just a few people, most of whom I knew. We did the last 10 miles together, and at one point Craig even gave me a little push so I didn’t fall off the wheel in front of me. Heh, there’s something to be said for riding with big guys who can put out a lot of power.

Then we finished! We rolled in, they gave us a little patch that says RAMROD 2011, took our finishing tag off our bibs, and called out our names. And there were a bunch of the fast people, many of them showered, looking all fresh and perky and annoying me. I took myself off to find the free ice cream truck, and by the time I’d consumed my fruit Popsicle, felt much better. I couldn’t get at my chocolate milk or food, since it was all in Dad’s car and he had the key, but I just sat and chatted with my buddies. We shot the breeze, rehashed the ride, exclaimed over the excellence of the weather and the ride in general, and looked at pictures of ourselves the official course photographer had posted. I bought mine for $10. I think it was worth it.

Dad rolled in a while later, very tired. We took a while recovering, taking showers, and generally getting combobulated. Then Dad heroically drove home again, dropping me off at my house with my zillion bags of stuff.

And that was RAMROD. I can hardly wait for next year. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to High Pass Challenge, the next big ride.


* Eatonville may sound familiar because I did an OSPI training there back in the spring. I got snowed, rained, and sleeted on during that three-day stay. Happily, my second Eatonville experience, with RAMROD, was infinitely nicer.

** Later I learned that the numbers are assigned in reverse age order. So the oldest rider on the course is number 1, and the youngest is number 800-something. I must’ve been close to the youngest, with a number of 809. I wish I’d known that when I was riding! Gives me a whole different perspective on when I pass people.

PS – Most of the pictures are Craig’s, with a scattering of other peoples’ included. I snagged them all off of Facebook, where you can see lots more if you really want.

7 Hills of Kirkland Century Ride Report

Day’s Verse*:
For even young people tire and drop out,
young folk in their prime stumble and fall.
But those who wait upon God get fresh strength.
They spread their wings and soar like eagles,
They run and don’t get tired,
they walk and don’t lag behind.

Isaiah 40:30-31

Today I rode the 7 Hills of Kirkland 100-mile (century) route with a large group of people I know from previous rides. The weather cooperated and refrained from raining on us, and although it remained overcast the entire ride, that just meant we also didn’t get sunburned or too hot.

On Sunday I worked hard to eat, particularly lots of carbs (not exactly a terrible hardship), and to drink plenty of water; and I just plain rested. No biking, nothing worth mentioning. Except for a good long nap. I even went so far as to have Ian drop me off at the starting point rather than riding there, as I normally would, so I saved all my energy for the ride itself. This morning before the ride, I also drank more than usual and made sure to eat my normal hearty oatmeal. Oatmeal really is the breakfast of bicyclists.

I mention all this specifically because I had an exceptionally good ride, to the point where other people were commenting on how strong I was riding, and that’s the only thing I did even remotely differently from usual. I won’t go into all the boring details, but the long and short of it is that I somehow paced myself well at the beginning and didn’t push too hard right off, and by the end was keeping up with guys who are usually way ahead of me. I only started feeling really fatigued with just a couple of miles left, and had enough left to push hard at the very end (which didn’t translate to particularly fast by that point, but oh well). Towards the end I took a few turns pulling, when I knew I’d be able to make it the rest of the way.

We comprised a pretty good-sized group, and I didn’t feel bad letting other people do the pulling for the first portion of the ride. We made a definite effort to stay together, stopping or slowing to regroup when we got too far separated, and waiting to leave as a group from rest stops, and this provided more opportunities to rest than we’ve had on recent rides. That helped, too. I really enjoyed the group aspect of the ride: We stayed together, helped each other, pushed each other, and I think all had a good ride. It felt like a fairly reasonable balance between the RTS “if you get dropped, too bad, we’re not waiting” approach and Francis’ “regroup at the top of every hill” approach.

The first 40 miles were the hardest, for sure. We did 6 of the major hills — something like 3,000 feet of climbing — in that distance. The next 60 miles we did ride up more hills, ending up with a total of just over 7,000 feet of climbing, but with nothing like the frequency or difficulty of the first half of the ride. We had lots of flat or almost flat stretches in Snoqualmie Valley where I was able to draft and take it relatively easy. All the big hills were old friends of mine, as I’ve ridden up all of them quite a number of times over the last six months. That let me pace myself well, a real boon. It helps to know if the hill’s going to get steeper, or if it’s almost over, or if it’s a long gradual climb, or what. Now that I’ve done all three different 7 Hills routes, I have to say I think the metric century is the hardest. The century had enough flats that you got a good rest, and the shorter route is just so short, but the metric has all the hardest hills with hardly any breaks.

Since the course goes so near our house, Ian walked over and took some pictures of me at a couple of different points. It was fun to see him, albeit extremely briefly. Here are two of the best pictures.
7 Hills Bike Ride

Katie on Bike

Anyway, overall, I rode very, very strong (for me) and felt excellent for the 7 Hills of Kirkland century ride. It was an overall great day for me**. I can only hope to feel so good in a couple months on RAMROD. Now I have to spend the next two months getting stronger, but not ruining what I have — a tricky proposition, but I’m learning to listen to my body and know when to push and when to rest. I’m not as strong or fit as most of the people I ride with, and although it’s sometimes discouraging to get dropped, or not be able to pull as fast, I can actually turn that to my advantage: The only way to get faster is to ride with people faster than you, and boy am I doing that.

* I know I used this on the previous post. But it was so darn appropriate for today, too.
** Dang, I it when other people are so comprehensively right. As I mentioned last post, Dan said I was easily ready for the 7 Hills, and doggone it, he was totally right. I’m glad, but I hate to admit it. Heh.

Quick Ride Report

Day’s Verse:
“For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Matthew 7:8

What a perfect day for riding. It was sunny, right around 35° or 40° (some frost and a few patches of ice in the shade), and just all-round gorgeous. The mountains were all out and snow-capped. Everybody else in the Seattle area was out, too, it seemed like.

Once again I have to question elevation. The ride leader, Francis Gan, said today’s ride (also posted on MapMyRide) was 3800 to 4000 feet of climbing; when I came home (having had my butt thoroughly kicked by all the hills) and put the route into GPS Visualizer reading the NED data, it said we climbed 5100 feet. Who to trust?

Anyway again I say that the hills kicked my butt. We went up a few that were almost laughably steep, and I know Francis’ rides only get harder from here. Two hills I seriously doubted that I’d actually make it to the top, but I refused to stop and walk — the indignity would’ve killed me. I’d rather die trying! And I didn’t die; so presumably I’ll get stronger. My max heart rate hit 187, not the highest I’ve ever gotten, but darn close. Theoretically my max heart rate is 197 – 200, depending on how you calculate it. The upshot was that that was the hardest hill ride I’ve done, possibly ever.

However, I held my own on the climbs. I was by no means the last person to the top on any of them, and I kept up reasonably well on the in-between parts, too. I’m pleased…and exhausted. Of the 20 people who started the ride, 11 finished. Apparently the attrition rate on Francis’ later-season hill rides is 75% or so. I can see why. This was the first hill ride of the year and I was ready to lay down and never get up again by the end. Gives me a secondary goal: Complete all of Francis’ rides that I start.

One gal, Natasha, was amazing: She went up every hill like it was flat, taking and holding the lead easily, spinning apparently effortlessly — often while chatting volubly with other riders. She stayed in the front of the pack the entire time, too. I’d aspire to be that fast and strong some day, but she’s at a fitness level that is really incomprehensible to me.

After all that, I rode home. Into a headwind. Fortunately, another guy on the ride also went north on the trail, so he helped pull me along for a while. We didn’t achieve any land speed records, but I was grateful to get home at all. Now it’s time for something high-protein, followed by a pre-bedtime nap.