Sunday, August 7, 2011

2011 Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge

100 miles, 11000 feet elevation
9:45 total time (8:30 on the bicycle)

Almost at the last minute (well, two weeks before the event), I decided to sign up for another century. I have done the Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge (SCMC) twice before. I find it to be one of the harder centuries in the area. It climbs around 11,000 feet elevation, and some of the hills are exceptionally steep.

Following the Seattle to Portland ride, and my increase in training recently, I felt that my conditioning was returning to a level where I could consider the more challenging rides. So, I decided it was worth trying this ride now. There was no unknown about the route. They change the course occasionally, but this year it would be the same as the first time I did it in 2007.

I did make a decision that created a small unknown — my choice of bicycle. I have two road bicycles. I have used both of them for centuries and double centuries. However my older one has lower gearing. I can do steep hills on either one, but I have only used the older one for the very steep hills. That was the one I used for both previous attempts at the SCMC. This time I wanted to try the newer one.

I prepared by riding a training course with exceptionally steep hills on the newer bicycle. I did it without trouble. However, the killer hill on the SCMC route (Jamison Creek Road) is more steep and much longer than any of these. I did not know if I had both the strength and endurance for the higher gearing on that road.

A week before the event, I contacted my friend Gabrielle whom I had not seen for months. I know that she had ridden this event before, so I thought I would check if she was trying it again this year. She replied that she was. It would be nice to meet again.

The starting location is just over a half hour drive from home. I woke up Saturday morning at 4:10am. I had set my alarm for 4:30, but Aasha woke up crying and I decided since I was awake, I would just get up. I got ready and left home at 5:45am and arrived at the start at 6:25am. I set up my bicycle and got registered. Just as I finished the paperwork, Gabrielle came by. She had just arrived so I waited for her and her friend Denise to set up and register.

7:00am, 0 miles, 0 feet total

The forecast was for a mostly sunny day, but we were blanketed in thick fog at the start. It was quite chilly, but I decided that I would not put on my jacket because the course starts with a good climb. Since I had not talked to Gabrielle for quite some time, we chatted as we ascended. I actually kept a faster pace than I normally would have because I kept up with her.

After reaching the summit, the road follows the mountain ridgeline for several miles. It had no extended climbs, but had many ups and downs. Gabrielle sped ahead and I had Denise for company for this stretch. For first half of this part, the road was wet, as if it had rained. The moisture was from all the fog condensing on the overhead trees.

9:00am, 26 miles, 3500 feet total

We all regrouped at the first rest area. It was warm at the stop but we did not linger too long. We left together for an extended downhill run. It was considerably cold, which was a bit of a surprise considering how warm it was at the top. After entering Big Basin State Park, the road has a series of up and down stretches, none too long. Again Gabrielle took off during the climbing.

10:30am, 41 miles, 4900 feet total

Denise and I reached the next rest stop expecting to see Gabrielle, but she had already left. This rest stop comes just before Jamison Creek. This is the steep climb that would be a first for me on this bicycle. Most of the chatter among the riders at the stop was about how intimidating the hill is. It is important to fuel up and otherwise prepare for the grueling climb, so I ate well.

I was feeling very cold at this point, but I had wanted to let myself get to that state (I could have stopped and slipped on my jacket at an earlier point). Previous times, I had overheated on Jamison Creek, so I wanted to start out cold.

I started the climb with a slow and steady pace. As the road hit and sustained its steepest parts, the deliberate pace was not an option. It still was slightly faster than what I would have done on my other bicycle. The lowest cadence I can pedal with my legs is about 60 turns per minute. So given that first gear on this bicycle is a little higher, I necessarily would be going faster than in first gear on the other. This also means I am forced into a greater effort than I would have on the other.

Fortunately, it was not a struggle. Although several cyclists passed me on this stretch, I passed several others. The sun broke through and the air became warm halfway up, but I was in no danger of overheating since I started with shivers at the bottom. I reached the top without feeling exhausted, and Gabrielle was waiting (she had been there for a while). A few minutes later, Denise joined. We left together to the lunch stop that was only a couple miles away.

11:45am, 50 miles, 7000 feet total

I still felt relatively fresh given that half the distance and most of the elevation was done. I ate a big lunch and rested for a little while. We three left together but our paths diverged a few miles down the road. Gabrielle and Denise were doing the 100 km route, which heads back to the finish at this point, whereas my 100 mile route adds another long climb. We said our goodbyes and I thanked them for the great company.

The next section included several shorter climbs before the last big one. I was passed again be a group of guys whom I had seen earlier. It seemed that they were stronger riders than I, considering our differences in speed. But it also seemed that they would periodically stop and regroup, at which time I would pass them. Our total average speeds seemed exactly the same.

1:20pm, 64 miles, 7900 feet total

There was an unofficial stop at a local park before the final big climb. I was the only rider to pause there at that time, but I thought it was a good spot to fill my water bottles and have a quick bathroom break.

Next up was Zayante Road, which I had last ridden four years ago. As I remembered it, it was a 10 mile climb where the first half is relatively flat and the second half is fairly steep. There was a small water stop just before the road becomes significantly steep. I did not need to stop because I had filled up recently. The same group of riders passed me early in this stretch of road, only to get passed by me when they paused at the water stop. By now I nicknamed them "the hares", after the famous tortoise and the hare fable.

2:50pm, 76 miles, 9900 feet total

I reached the final rest top just past the top of Zayante tired but not exhausted. I was having stiffness in my neck and back, so I spent a little extra time stretching. The next section contained a long downhill. Approaching that, the hares passed me but then paused to regroup and clear up some confusion about the route only to have the tortoise (me) pass them.

At the bottom of the hill, we were close to the end, but still had a small climb. Again, there was a small water stop which I skipped, but at which the hares stopped. This would be the last time I saw them.

4:50pm, 100 miles, 11000 feet total

I arrived at the end feeling good. It was satisfying knowing that I had finished one of the hardest centuries in our area without any serious problems. I was hoping to have a lower overall time the my previous attempts, but I had practically the same time as last year. Still, that was not a disappointment.

This year has seen me increase my conditioning to a level I have not had in three years. Considering that I have been able to do regular trainings, and that I have done some difficult events, I am wondering if I should attempt some even bigger challenges. There is a chance I may try to do a double century this year.