Trip ReportFour Horsemen... of the Solstice!
Another bike adventure as promised after "The Link-Up"! Brace yourselves with a good chair for this one! ;-) Here we go!
We arrived on the starting line at 4AM in Big Pine, CA at Race headquarters. One quote was posted on the door:
"Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate." Leave behind every hope, you who enter.
Lead by Steven Barnes and the Everest Challenge support team, the objective of today was to help create something new, the hardest one day bike race anywhere. The ride would be themed on Biblical Revelation Chapter 6 - The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (4 major challenges of the day!) and held on the longest day of the year, the summer Solstice!
As we readied, Steven read from bible by flashlight on the line:
I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, ďCome!Ē I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest. (We would begin strong)
I heard the second beast say, "Come and see!" And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword. (We still have a weapon)
I heard the third beast say, "Come and see!" And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. (We would be disarmed & face darkness)
I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, ďCome!Ē I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. (Nothing is left, we are still riding!)
For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?
We were handed a cue sheet and a list of cell phone #'s:
It would be a mystery ride into the unknown unfolding in stages- we would receive the next cue sheet each time we finished and returned to race headquarters. There would be a 25 hour hard time limit and an optional 1 hour rest period off the clock.
We knew it was going to be long and steep! All our knowledge was summed up here (Steven's early morning race day blog):
Three Stages, back to back to back.
A ton of climbing.
Oh, and the two dirt sections. They know the first Stage takes them up to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, and then past it onto the dirt road.
But only for about three miles. Turn around and come back here to the secret HQ and pick up the cue sheet for Stage 2.
YOU know that Stage 2 is an eyeball-flattening 300km, with three or four monster climbs (depending on whether you count South Lake and Sabrina separately. They will only do the first 13 miles on 168 once).
Oh, and Stage three...they are NOT going to believe what I have in store for them. In the dark. After 240 miles.
Steven had recruited each of us from different directions from attending his past events. We knew it was a volunteer trial ride with no prizes and minimal support, but we would still approach it as our own race. We needed to prove that it was possible first to make way for an official event. First there were 12 riders, then maybe only 8?
At the race meeting 4 riders showed up- Sean and Jamie from Utah and Colorado- current Cat 2 & 3 bike racers. I was immediately intimidated sitting down seeing the amount and size of veins popping out of Jamie's legs. This was all business uhoh..
Then there was Brook, 44 year old father of 2 from Southern California. Retired from a younger bike racing background, he was now officially an endurance master completing 9 double century rides last year and another 5 more already in 2014.
Then there was me- Dubbed the "local ringer", I did not feel worthy of this title. At the start of the year, my friend and climbing hero Hans had inspired me to experiment and personally commit to doing as many hard things as I could for a year for 2014. I realized that's something that has always been important in the background in my life. We can each take on our own challenges in our own ways. The idea of the impossible inspired me. When Steven told me he was trying to create a new ride in my hometown I hadn't planned on biking so much, but I knew I couldn't pass up the neat opportunity and I convinced him a local rider had to do the course. I made a promise 6 months ago that I would lock myself in a training cage and try as hard as I could to be ready in time to be a part of the ride!
So... I tried riding almost exclusively uphill only instead. I experimented with tracking and rigidly riding 150 miles every week. I tried bike riding every other day (I made 1-2 hour short hill climbing sessions I could do between 12 hour nursing shifts from my door), I got competitive with myself and almost everyone I'd never heard of on Strava, I got fed up with it and chucked computer tracking out the window for a while, I tried self supporting a 20 hour ride for a double century, I climbed a new pass up and down the Sierra Nevada each week, I tried interval training- racing repeatedly up 7% hills for 3-5 minutes. I got aero handle bars and the local bike shop guys looked at me like I was nuts (was anyone on the starting line not?)... Ice packs, healthy food, foam rolling, fish oil, vitamins, minimal alcohol, sleep better somehow! I'd surprised myself going from 185 lbs to 167 in the process and eating a ton!
I'd kept up getting out the door somehow. I found I enjoyed the new process this time, because I could push harder than I had in sports before. I was working out the major muscles in my legs with lower impact than running, but I wasn't getting injured like I had in the past with tiny tendon and muscle ligaments in rock climbing. I was almost sure I would get injured somehow remembering my climbing injuries over the years, but I'd gone in accepting this outcome and my body had kept going each week until I wasn't afraid. I couldn't try any harder now!
I caved and shaved my legs this week. I wanted the other guys to take me seriously.
No one said much, but all agreed this would be the biggest ride we had ever tried. The question quickly went around the room about double centuries, multi-day races, etc. We agreed on that and how in the world are we supposed to train for this ride?! A giant mystery ride to our doom?! Dirt riding? What did we sign up for? Lets sleep boys okay.. ahh anxious anyone??
And we're off! I didn't know much about racing, but I knew I didn't want to be dropped from the group at the start. This might be the loneliest crazy ride in the world if I didn't see anyone after the starting line! I didn't want to go out too hard though either. I fought with both in my head. The adrenaline, everything, I think we all went out too hard. We headed up Westgard pass at record pace for me- averaging 10 miles an hour uphill I'd later find out. I was the first one to start breathing heavy. I was going harder than I wanted to. Brook commented that it was going to be a long day and to ride my own ride. Jamie was pushing hard. It was obvious he wanted to split for the front. It was like we were flexing our muscles for each other to see how we all lined up. Jamie and Sean pulled ahead bit by bit. I backed off and decided I really needed to pee and let everyone go. Alright, all alone in the dark!
I soon caught Brook. In the back of my mind I remember setting 2 goals for myself: 1. Finish the ride first 2. Don't come in last place if possible. It was way too early to think about finishing though!
We leap frogged each other back and forth all the way up to Westgard pass. I would push harder for a bit, he was always steady as a rock endurance. He continued to offer the sage advice to remember it was a long day and I assured him I was racing against myself (knowing the road better, I had practiced speeding up faster on the relief angle sessions on my training days- it was my only advantage).
Steve, waiting up top taking photos, was surprised to see me before Brook and shouted "looking really strong Ryan!"
We soon reached the Bristlecone forest.
We topped off water bottles in the parking lot and headed out for... dirt riding and the course high point of 10,500 feet. We were allowed to have a second set of wheels in the race van here if we desired to swap out, but we all chose to ride our own version of tougher gator skin/4 season style tires and push our luck - yes for the whole ride (at least we wouldn't get flats on the road sections later hopefully).
I was stoked to arrive just as the Sean and Jamie were leaving the parking lot. I really didn't get totally dropped by these guys?! I'd gone harder than I'd wanted, but I needed all the mental confidence boost I could get at the start of such a day! I can. I can okay!
And then we hit the dirt.. Something changed immediately. This was not a race right now. This is survival not winning or losing! We shouted encouraging words back and forth. There was a silent bond between us as we passed each other. Good job! Lets all finish this day! I knew now we all wanted each other to finish the ride- probably thinking the same thoughts wondering if we could? What in the world else could be in store on this mystery ride?
Rocky wash board and road bikes.. I knew Steven had put it in clearly to mess with everyone's head. It's demoralizing stuff. He'd done it- all in, no half assing this one. My arms vibrated flapping like Jello Jigglers. We had to go slow. We actually found it was often easier to ride over rocks than the dirt. We were required to stop and take a list of digital photos at major land marks and turnarounds during the day so no faking boys!
He would later comment:
"The three miles of rocky trail at 10,000' were warmly received.
...that would be three miles each way, of course."
I thought of my local friend Tom Grundy, and the climbers Alex Honnold and Cedar Wright doing a bike adventure on this trail recently. I chuckled, at least I was not alone in my crazy! I understood why they looked so wasted in the video. They were also part of the silent brotherhood. I had to go back and watch it again today. I didn't realize till just now that it was entitled : "Worst Experience of Alex Honnold's Life", of course it was!
Steven had picked the two biggest bike climbs in the Eastern Sierra and found a way to make them that much harder. Of course South Lake would be next. It was a given. There was no other way! Lake Sabrina too! He didn't even have to tell us. It was time to be disarmed! Would you like to check your ego now or later?
Steven likes to start his rides hard. It's the flavor of what makes the Everest Challenge feel so difficult. I remembered now clearly his words last year when I finished, "Brutal? We eat brutal for breakfast around here!"
Brook took the only real crash of the day "overcooking" a turn coming down the washboard and ended up with a flat. He said he was okay and to go on! He was still mostly good spirits:
Downward bound! Time for Stage II. Lets go!
I figured there was no way Brook could catch me (come on I've rehearsed this thing and broke my records over and over?!), but the man can flat out descend! Ten minutes later he buzzed me at 50mph+ on the descent down Westgard (he admitted later it's always been a strong point- it is no argument!)
We pulled into town just as Sean and Jamie were heading out up 395 to Bishop and onward. Good luck!
This was to be our disarming, but I did have one more weapon- we all did, we just didn't quite know yet. We weren't allowed to have personal support, but Paul Rasmussen had committed months ago to help me out with this day however he could. Steven decided to make him an official Course Marshall. Another white van was about to be all over the course! Put some more quarters in the arcade baby! Needless to say, Paul would be an invaluable encouraging support!
This was a familiar view:
I cranked up line street towards South Lake. Don't tell Steven (only public facilities can be used for support), but I couldn't resist running into the house to use the bathroom to pee on the way by. How cruel! I'm actually riding by our house!
I started to get nauseated for the first time of the day passing Bishop Creek Lodge:
They say a cyclist can process 200-300 calories an hour while working. I'd put down 3 energy gels in a row on the easier section passing the lodge after starving myself working hard up the grade. My stomach wanted to punch me in the face!
Somehow I didn't. Steve was waiting at the top for us. We had done 100 miles! Now that's one hell of a century ride! Wait we got 200 more miles to go.....
So we got to go visit this landmark:
And of course:
I'm not posing in this picture. This was my natural stance at this point for some reason... I think I'm trying to breathe
At this point I passed Jamie in the fetal position curled over in the back of one the vans. He'd gone hard and led the race to this point pushing against Sean in the front. Paul said he looked bad heading up to Sabrina. He was pale. He had stopped sweating. Jamie was done. The seemingly strongest rider with the head turning leg veins was out..
Well at least we have the relief flat section coming up before the next climb! Steven had finally given us a break. The 3rd Horsemen was to be Lower Rock Creek to the Green Church (Sincerely thank you road construction men for closing Mosquito Flat this week, you also saved our butts!).
The relief was too short lived... the speeding bullet Brook had gone out of sight on the descent. As I headed in to Round Valley, something all too familiar emerged.. afternoon Bishop winds... alone and windy!
I had thought about quitting quite a few times during the day. I'll totally admit it. I didn't want to, but this was actually the closest I came to giving up. I knew if it stayed this windy up Rock Creek and 395 the race was over for everyone. It's like climbing a hill on flat ground then pushing up twice as steep a hill on the way up. This was the disarming! Bittersweet. I could see Paul's van in the mirror behind me.
Well? We aren't even halfway into the 25 hours yet? Come on local boy?! You can't be just done? We train in this obnoxious wind all the time! Remember last week? Alright... I guess lets see what it's like in an hour or 2. I sent Paul ahead to rest at the Paradise fire station so he could nap. There we are committed now! At least I got aero bars!
I caught up again with Brook just getting to Paradise before me. He was pissed at the wind too! We'd been leap frogging each other from the beginning. We should ride the rest of Stage II together working to fight the wind!
Sean was up ahead about an hour somewhere- good luck buddy! Apparently he'd gotten blasted even worse than us! Steve was waiting here too to talk with us and stock Paul up on supplies. He said on that note he would head out to the front and leave Paul in charge of the back. Jamie had stayed on the course with his wife in a chase car up to this point following Brook and he was free to rest now.
We finished the last climbing up through Tom's Place to here:
Three horses down! Now we had a relatively flat century ride to crank out to Benton back down to Bishop and Bigpine HQ as dusk approached. This was a really hard spot to be mentally. We were 150 miles deep and 12.5 hours in. We'd just done the majority of the tougher climbing back to back, but still we were only half way into this... and the unknown stage III! One more dirt section? Crap in the dark?! Where? Do we have to ride all the way to Onion Valley tonight? Alright don't think about that now..
I really had no idea if I could finish this or not. I'm very glad Brook was there then. All business face.. We were going to crank this century ride down! That's all that mattered right now. It's really all I could do. I could only deal with right now and right now I could still go. Okay! Luckily the wind had calmed as we got farther from the mountains and would later turn to a tail breeze.
I don't have much race experience and nerves were short at this point, but Brook laid down the law on how we were going to draft and break each other. My previous drafting experience was limited to a day chasing Don Bowie as hard as I could to keep up as he went as hard as he could. Sage advice again.. Go slower up front! You need to go at least 5 minutes a turn. Find a steady pace. It's still a long ride Ryan! If I touch your hip, it means I'm coming up on this side. Watch for rumble strips in the dark!
I slowed down my efforts, but I feel like I also was again going harder than I wanted to. If I wanted to eat or pee, or fuel up at the van we both had to stop now. Brook is a really nice guy, but he hates stopping. He told me to not even think about taking the optional one hour rest period when we got to Big Pine. It would only hurt me. We blasted right by Paul in the van over and over again.
We still had energy to smile a little, but Brook wants you to know we were really hurting and it took all our efforts... kinda true ;-)
Got to get the mandatory photo's! Brook thought it would be funny to get a true to life photo of us both peeing here and Paul probably would have obliged, but he was out of earshot. He hadn't brought a coat; it was so hot earlier!
A hot springs never was so tempting!
As we pulled in to Benton it was time for full heavy duty bike lights kit! I'd borrowed lights from 3 different people to be able burn tail lights for 24 hours and head lamps for 12 per agreed safety rules. Paul went to the gas station and bought an ice cream. He asked can you eat this now? I didn't know what I could or couldn't do or what my body wanted right now so I just took one big bite!
Sixteen hours. I was nearing that point I remembered from my big training ride on Sonora/Tioga Pass where everything I put in my mouth might as well have been a bar of soap according to my digestive system. At some point it becomes easier to drink than to eat. I forced down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich one more time anyway while we breaked for a few minutes playing with lights!
I didn't like drafting close in the dark down highway 6. It was new enough to begin with, but I was fully trusting Brook that he wouldn't run over anything while simultaneously getting blinded close up by bike tail lights. It's a busy road, but I've found that people give a lot more space to a fully lit bicycle at night than they do in the day. I didn't want to crash though! He got upset at me. Either keep up or tell me to slow down if you can't stay right on my wheel! 5 minutes rotate out!
Alright so be it! I'm right on your butt dude! Paul said we were 2 men on a mission. Big Pine or bust! Luckily there was nothing big or too dark hiding on the road. One rumble strip snuck up on us and we both scattered opposite ways! My light was brighter. I liked being up front. I'm tired though!
Hey look! It's Bishop again? Okay bye cya later Bishop!
People at the bars on Main Street looked at us really weird lit up like Christmas trees coming full speed drafting through town in the dark! Main Street drag race is right!
I let Brook go for the downhill flats into Big Pine. I think we both could use a little of our own space for a minute after all that! Paul ran home to grab a coat and some fast food dinner at least before the last stage! Yes Paul is the man!
HQ about 11pm! We arrived and quickly began to change kits into new shorts and socks etc. Brook was right. My legs began to cramp up like a full body shiver as I sat on the couch. We needed to go. I pounded AZ Ice Tea and did my best to stomach a Red Bull. Hour count 19! We both had switched to mostly drinking. Wow we had enough time to do this?! Two more cue sheets were left for us. Steve had left a note on the board to turn around at 2am wherever we got to and to flash lights towards the road if we had any trouble on the dirt section! Thanks buddy ;-) So sweet of you hehehe...
Right then Sean burst in the door with Steven following. He had made a 2 and a half hour lead on us. The course was going to be cut by about 30 miles for a total of 267! We only had to do one more climb and not two parts! Get in vans at the end! Sean had gone off the side of the road at two parts trying to finish stage 3- all fine, but also having close calls with headlight chasing "kamikaze" rabbits on the speedy descending! Suddenly climbing another dirt road just didn't seem like a good idea anymore. Not tonight. If Sean couldn't, Steven didn't want us out there till 6 am wrecking ourselves alone! Gosh we had some serious time on the clock, but I didn't mind this news one bit! Sean had won! Nice buddy! We'll take it!
"We modified the course late in the day...one rider is done, and the rest still riding are on the course right now, charging toward the Finish. Climbing is just climbing...but it was the nocturnal descents that were messing with the psyches of the racers as the afternoon turned into evening and then into night. It seemed like it got late really early. Or maybe it was the special magic that lives out in the wildest places...only revealing itself when the night is late and still. Well, the descents, and the wildlife. And the infamous dirt section. Nobody thought that was a great idea anymore."
Of course Stage III wasn't south like we had worried! It would be Death Valley Road through the Devil's Gate! We were originally supposed to climb some part dirt/part heinous hill out there on the back side too! I'll have to drive out and look soon.
Are you coming Ryan?! Brook was ready to go!
I'll see you out there buddy!
....and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him...
I had this. I knew it! I could do it on zero calories if I really needed to if my stomach insisted. Slow and steady! Ugh let's try another Powerade Paul! I let Brook go. I would not fight him for second place now if I even could try! It wasn't meant to end like that here! He had pulled me along together through the long night. He had earned and deserved his spot! We were brothers!
I wanted to finish the last stage alone now on my terms (climbing particularly is usually done best at your own pace anyway).
Wait one more thing! I need my music! My bike speaker! There are no more surprises! Steven can't pull anything else on us now! I had something fittingly special for this one oh yes! I tuned in the album "Invincible" by Two Steps from Hell and pedaled off to the Devil's Gate!
With songs titled Heart of Courage, Protectors of the Earth, Strength of a Thousand Men, Freedom Fighters, Archangel, Invincible, To Glory, Blackheart, and United We Stand - Divided We Fall, now we were ready to finish this epic ride! Only 3,700 more feet of climbing to go! I can see the light at the end, there actually is one out there somewhere!
Ironically right in the middle of the Devil's Gate no kidding, my chain locked up off my highest gear freezing my pedals up and trying to sabotage me one more time as it went into the wheel spokes! I almost fell having to Bunny hop the bike in place to get the cleats off in time... Creepy.. Can I finish this ride?!
What is my blood sugar right now anyway? I can still go? Alright one gel. Nope not that flavor. Not that one either ick.. Okay ready go try quick! Alright, that's 100 calories on board. I'll drink something next time I see Paul! I still have to stand in my easy gear to make it up steep sections. Finally Paul drove by and told me only 3.5 miles left! It seemed like a forever. Why is it always like that? Brook rode down to me and shouted at me to finish at the last half mile! According to Paul he had gone part Loco when he got to the van in some kind of odd confusion and Paul had told him to start riding down the road slowly..
Finish! Yes! 22:08. I did it and I didn't come in last either as well! Lets just say being only halfway into this one was a tough place to be in the head! Yes! 3rd place :-) Brook made it 13 minutes ahead of me awesome! Hey we still have 3 hours left on the clock? Want to drag race up to Bishop and back one more time for 300 miles? Nah that's okay! Hah. Ahh nice van....
We made 267 miles and over 24k climbing woah- and don't forget the dirt, we didn't! I was glad to pass the final 30 even if we did have 3 more hours!
For comparison the nearby White Mountain Double century is 197 miles, +11,500 ft.
My perspective is changed. It's ridiculous, I know there are things I can't do, but almost anything I can think of feels possible on a bike. Just one of these climbs was a big deal last year! It feels like a different sport. Who knows what this ride means, but it meant a lot to me taking it on as someone outside of bike racing. I know there are much stronger racers than me. I had to discipline myself to train mostly by myself around weird work hours for the past 6 months. I recognized it as something different as a challenge and that takes a certain kind of crazy to come up with and understand. My kind of crazy ;-)
The whole team was so done. Sean waited up to see us again at HQ. Reflecting on the day- he had soloed close to 200 miles after Jamie dropped! A major accomplishment especially through the winds, but his most "unemotional win" ever for a big ride. This was survival!
I need to eat something! Really, McDonald's is the only choice right now? Alright. I let Paul drive me home. We'd come back and get my truck in the morning! Who cares about a shower either! Okay burgers and fries inhale... Night!
Thanks to these awesome men! I couldn't have done this without each one of them.
PS the sticker shot is for Hans- I hope I've kept the promise and lived up to it in my own way! Do hard things. Steven digs it! Thanks for the spark! Maybe I've become a halfway decent biker and I never planned on it!
He says I'm ready for the Furnace Creek 508 if it was tomorrow "the hardest 48 hours in sport" hmm. The application deadline is this week and this is my chops. It is do hard things year 2014? Maybe I kind of have to try to get on then.. I'll never be more ready at this rate. I'm chucking the bike for a couple weeks though! I want to go rock climbing!
Cedar Wrights comments as a fellow rock climber on his recent bike sufferfest adventures resonated with me most recently as to why do this- "Thereís nothing quite like just diving in and seeing what happens, because itís amazing what one can achieve when the gauntlet is thrown down. Iím guessing that in a few months Alex and I will probably start planning an even more foolhardy test of our endurance and will to suffer, because the plain truth is that itís a fine line between joy and suffering, and this sort of elective suffering can be hugely empowering. For Alex and I, I think itís about etching a huge life experience into our psyches, so that we can grow old knowing that we went as big as possible ó creating an epic goal and then seeing it through one painful mile after the next."
Alright cheers guys till next time!
PS I've been drinking water around the clock now and have had to get up many times for another glass while writing this!
-Made it back out to check out the finish line in Death Valley yesterday!
Some final reflections from Steven now for those interested in more:
We met some new and old friends for a bold adventure, tried out some new ideas, learned some stuff, and had a pretty good time.
I LOVE THE RACE FORMAT!! We will be back with this...
NEXT YEAR: FOUR HORSEMEN of the SOLSTICE II.
Stuff that will be the same:
Same weekend, of course, and a new route.
Same theme: WHODR...World's Hardest One Day Race.
Pretty long, 200-300 miles. Or so.
Pretty steep, 20,000 - 30,000'. Or so.
Start when it is still good and dark, like 4AM. Or so. Lights, reflecty stuff on you and the bike, carrying your own spares and food and things.
By invitation. Resumes required. We want you to succeed.
Oh, and the dirt roads. Always a dirt section or two.
1) You will need to bring a volunteer. Not a personal support vehicle to follow you around and wipe you brow. This is still going to be a solo adventure. But you will need to supply a staff member, so we can get everything done that needs doing. Including a few follow/SAG cars. But you will still expect to ride on your own most of the time and be ready to go for an hour or more without help.
2) More riders. Of course, this was a trial run, so we were fine with it small. Next year it will be GAME ON.
3) Incremental Finisher Status. You finished TWO of the Four Horsemen, or THREE, or ALL FOUR. Otherwise we are running a race with NO FINISHERS every year. Which has its own kind of coolness, but makes for kind of a grumpy after party. Not so good.
Hope YOU will put us on the calendar. June 19-21, 2015.
It. Will. Be. Epic.
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