Sunday, April 27, 2008

Mt Hamilton Challenge

125 miles, 8000 feet total elevation gain,
12 hours total (10 hours on the bicycle)

I made a late decision to do my first century of this year — the 39th annual Mt. Hamilton Challenge. I thought that this one would be good preparation for the Death Ride, since it is the same distance although only about half the elevation. It is definitely easier than the Death Ride, but it fits into my training plan nicely and it starts and ends very close to my home.

This is one of the more low-key organized centuries. They do not provide any food. Riders bring three bags of food to the start, and they transport one to each of the three rest stops on the route.

Click for an interactive map.

6:30am, 0 miles, 0 feet

I woke up at 5:00 to get ready, eating a few cookies to get some fuel into my system. Vaishali dropped me at Wilcox High School in Santa Clara (very close to our old house). I got signed in at 6:15. My friend Ravi (who I mentioned in my last report) decided to join me for just the first part of the ride, so I waited for him.

Click to see a larger picture.
This is Mt. Hamilton viewed from Wilcox High School (the start).
The white buildings on the summit are Lick Observatory, the location of
the first rest stop. It is 35 miles away from and 4100 feet above the start.

We left at sunrise (6:30) and most of the city roads were still empty at that time. We traveled through Silicon Valley for 10 miles to get to the base of the hills, and then started the climb of Mt. Hamilton. There were quite a few cyclists on the road. Some were doing the same century, but many were just riding on their own. We encountered two guys on a training ride who were Death Ride veterans, so I chatted with them about their experiences.

9:45am, 35 miles, 4300 feet

We reached the summit faster than I expected. I had kept a faster pace than I normally would have because I wanted to push myself. Since there was food and support along the route, there was no worry of getting stranded.

We rested at Lick Observatory at the summit and ate some food (I packed an orange, banana, and a few cookies). After a 20 minute rest, we parted. Ravi returned the way we came, and I continued down the other side of the mountain. This part of the route is very scenic and feels totally remote. There is no development along the road except for a few scattered ranches.

The biggest single climb was finished with Mt. Hamilton, but this part of Mines Road has several smaller ascents and descents. Although much of the road is flat, we were going directly into a steady headwind. I had not expected that, so I was using much more energy than I thought I would be.

12:25, 63 miles, 7000 feet

The second rest stop was set up on Mines Road at roughly the halfway point of the whole route. I was pretty tired when I reached this point, though not exhausted. I was told that the rest of Mines Rd to Livermore was all downhill. This meant that I did not have to take a very long break here since I would be using less energy for a while.

Video of rest stop #2.

I had been drinking plenty of water during the ride, but surprisingly I urinated very little. The day was fairly warm, and predicted to get to the lower 80's in Livermore and Pleasanton, so I needed to make myself drink even more to avoid dehydration.

Because I was so tired, I had no appetite. Still, I forced myself to eat everything I had packed (orange, pasta, few cookies) since I knew I needed the energy. I drank as much water as I could and filled my two water bottles. This time it was a 30 minute break.

2:45pm, 91 miles, 7000 feet

Mines Rd headed downhill for 18 miles to Livermore, then the route took us east to Pleasanton and was flat. This was the easiest stretch of the whole route. I even managed to keep a 20 mile per hour pace on the flat ground. I did not expect to have enough energy for that.

Two short (and very shaky) clips of Mines Road between rest stop 2 and Livermore.

This rest stop was at a city park, so we ate our food on picnic benches. Again, I had zero appetite but made myself eat all my food (same what I had at rest stop 2). And again, I barely urinated despite drinking plenty of water. When I reached this rest stop, I, and many other cyclists, had a layer of salt encrusted on our faces; evidence of how much water and salt we were losing.

The one thing I forgot to pack was pretzels. I planned on keeping some with me so I could use them to replenish my salt. But so far I had not been feeling any serious effects of dehydration.

Cyclist relaxing in the shade at rest stop 3.

Like at the last stop, I rested for 30 minutes. Upon leaving the rest area, I felt surprisingly tired. The majority of climbing was finished, but I still had 1000 feet of elevation gain on Calaveras road in the 35 miles remaining. Considering that that was a fraction of the elevation and mileage that I had already done, I was not too concerned.

The route to Calaveras Rd was mostly flat, and Calaveras has no steep slopes — it is a mostly steady ascent followed by a descent. Once I started climbing, I began feeling the effects of exhaustion. I had burned all my available energy stores, and the food from the last rest stop was not digesting. I had a headache, nausea, and felt light-headed. Drinking water was difficult because that increased my nausea. I was tempted to stop by the side of the road, but instead I just kept a slow pace.

5:45pm, 110 miles, 8000 feet

After the gradual descent, Calaveras turns into a steep descent back to Silicon Valley. I did not feel comfortable doing this descent while still feeling dizzy. I knew there was a park at the beginning of the steep descent, so I stopped there.

I found an empty picnic table and sat down with my head on the table. I rested like this for 15-20 minutes. That made all the difference. After getting back up, I did not feel the food sitting like a brick in my stomach like I had earlier. Clearly it had digested because I had energy again.

6:45pm, 125 miles, 8000 feet

The descent back to the valley was no problem. Now I had just 10 more flat miles back to Wilcox high school. I and a small group of riders got bunched together by the timing of the signal lights. The ride back to the start was uneventful.

7:15pm, 130 miles, 8000 feet

I called Vaishali when I finished and told her not to pick me up — I wanted to ride the extra 4 miles home. I had the energy, and after 125 miles, an extra 4 on flat ground is really nothing. I felt pretty good when I got home, but I was tired. I showered, told Vaishali about the ride and showed her some pictures, and drank a can of soda (to replenish blood sugar), then went to bed before 8:30.

It ended up being a very enjoyable ride, despite the battle with exhaustion. The mistake I made was that I should have rested longer at the last rest stop to allow the food to digest, and I should have consumed salt to replenish the massive amount of sodium I lost. The exhaustion may not have hit me (or at least not hit me as hard) if I had not become dehydrated.

I think my performance indicates that I am getting close to being in shape for the Death Ride. Of course that route is harder, but I would be keeping a slower pace that what I did on this day. I have plenty of time to increase my conditioning and I feel confident that I will.

Monday, April 7, 2008

New Route, New Riding Buddy

I usually do my long rides alone. It is not often that people have the time and energy (and interest) to spend half a day or more on a bicycle. But this last weekend I had some company.

About a month ago, as I was finishing a ride, I passed a cyclist going down Highway 9, and he later caught me on the flat local roads near home. We chatted a bit, exchanging names and talking about recent rides and favorite rides. Then we split about a mile from home.

Later in the week, I received an email from Ravi, in response to a message I posted in a local bicycling forum asking about bike routes to/from Coalinga. Since he only knew my first name, he asked "are you the Murali I met last weekend"?

He sent me a link to his online ride reports, and I got to read about some of his cycle adventures (Yosemite, Seqouia and Kings Canyon Parks). He was clearly at a level above me, so would make a great riding partner. We decided to try to ride together, and it took a couple weekends for our schedules to synchronize.

My original plan was to do a route shorter but more difficult than last week's. It would include two significant climbs -- Highway 9 (an old standard) and Montevina Road in Los Gatos (a new one for me). We met a mile from home and started.

Click for interactive map.

I kept a faster pace up Highway 9 than what I usually do. I was keeping up with Ravi, but also wanted to push myself for a better workout. As we ascended, the cool air turned to mist, then to drizzle. As we paused to at the rest area at the Highway 9 / Skyline Blvd junction, the drizzle turned into a light rain. I had some concerns whether our ride would be washed out, but we decided to continue.

The ride south on Skyline contained many small ascents and descents. The further we progressed, the clearer the sky became, so our planned route was in no jeopardy from the weather. We descended on Old Santa Cruz Hwy to Lexington Reservoir. After a short water break at the school there, we headed to Montevina which starts near the dam.

I was not certain that I would make it to the top without stopping. I had kept a stronger pace than usual, and my usual post-work training ride (Page Mill Road, 34 miles, 2000 feet) was only two days ago so I was not 100% recovered. As we started the 3.5 mile steep road, my legs felt better than expected.

We kept a slow pace, so it looked like I would make it all the way. But as we neared the top, the road became significantly steeper. Although it looked like we were around one quarter mile or less from the end, my legs were almost out of energy. Disappointedly, I stopped for a minute and let them recover.

I started again and made the last turn before the road ends. I saw Ravi standing at the gate, but the road was pitched even steeper there. I put all my effort into it, while Ravi shouted encouragement. My legs were so weak now that I felt that I might stall. After zigzagging a short distance I finally reached the end. However, a combination of loose gravel, slow-speed instability, and light-headedness caused me to lose my balance and fall over as I tried to dismount.

It was the hill's final indignity towards me. Exhausted, I laid there for a while and we both laughed about it. Ravi picked up my bike and I eventually got up and we rested a while.

The view from the top of Montevina Road.

From the top of Montevina, there is a dirt path that connects to the top of (the infamous) Bohlman Road. We took the path, biking on the flatter sections and walking on the slopes and loose ground. The descent on Bohlman was fast and steep. I was completely exhausted, but the rest of the ride was flat. We split at the usual place.

The whole ride was 52 miles, nearly 6000 feet elevation gain, and over 5 hours total. The Death Ride is almost exactly 2.5 times this route. I have more work to do to improve my conditioning.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Back to the Coast

My training schedule was interrupted by a surprise party. I was able to ride this past weekend, but for the one before, I was in Illinois. A bunch of relatives went there to attend a surprise birthday party for my mother in law. Although I could not train, I had a great time.

I have not mentioned it so far, but I actually have a specific goal for all this training. The main century I want to do this year is scheduled for July 12. It called the Death Ride. It is in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and it is 129 miles long with 15,000 feet total elevation gain. Although most people focus on the distance, it is really the total climbing plus the fact that it is at elevation (between 4000 and 9000 feet) that give it its name.

Nothing I have done so far is as difficult as this, so that is why I am determined to improve my conditioning so quickly. I will write more about the Death Ride in future entries.

Click for interactive map.

So this weekend I wanted to be sure to do a challenging ride. Last week, I was able to do Page Mill Road to Skyline Blvd after work as a warmup. My goal for this weekend was to ride to the ocean and back (which requires going over the mountains in each direction). The total distance for this route would be 71 miles.

The first ride up the mountains was on Old La Honda Road because I wanted something only moderately difficult. Since I have not done a ride this long for a while, I wanted to make sure to pace myself accordingly. Strangely, I saw very few cyclists. This is one of the more popular roads for weekend cycling. It was a beautiful day, but it was unusually cold (probably 40's and 50's) which is what kept the roads empty.

I crossed Skyline Blvd and descended Old La Honda Road on the other side of the mountains. From here there are fantastic views of the ocean side of the mountains. This connects to Highway 84 which continues (at a relatively gradual grade) to the coast. The last few miles before the ocean are mostly flat, but a strong headwind made it more challenging than it should be.

Just before the coast, there is a small general store which is a popular bicycle destination. This area is relatively remote so there are few services. But since it is part of several popular bicycle routes, cyclist often break there. They have a bicycle rack outside in expectation of the visitors. I decided to eat an egg salad sandwich here since it had been 3 hours since I started, and about four hours since I had last eaten (a peanut butter jelly sandwich and a boiled egg).

I took the sandwich with me to the beach, which was one mile away. There were quite a few people here, as one would expect on a sunny spring Sunday, but a very cold breeze was blowing in from the ocean so most needed to bundle up.

I rode up the coast a few miles to connect to Tunitas Creek Road, which was my route back over the mountains. I had been on this road last fall with my friends Andy and Sarah, but we only went down. This would be my first time up. I expected it to be difficult, but it was less of a struggle than I thought it would be. By the time I reached the top, I was tired but not exhausted, which was a good sign.

I crossed Skyline Blvd and descended on Kings Mountain Road, which was the coldest part of the route today. From there it was the usual, mostly flat stretch back home. The total time for the ride was 7 hours. Minus all the breaks (I had to take on/off my jacket several times, took pictures, ate) the time was 6 hours. I need to be able to do this faster if I want to do the Death Ride.