Jul 032009
 

Bonking
Mile 194.6 to Mile 254.3

I rode out of Taylorsville the same way I rode in: happy, confident, and feeling well-rested. I had not experienced falling asleep on the bike as I had in the 600k. And I felt much better at this point in the ride than on that previous one.

Genesee General Store

Genesee General Store

The road from Taylorsville starts by working its way gradually up past Genesee, an old mining town in the northeastern corner of Indian Valley. From there, it becomes another long climb along Indian Creek to Antelope Lake. There is a control at the Boulder Creek Work Center on Antelope Lake. It is just under 25 miles from Taylorsville. I expected to make it there easily. That is, until I started the climb.

Indian Creek Road starts out with a fairly steep grade. After a few miles, it levels off some, but continues to climb. The sun was riding high now, and it was warm, if not particularly hot.

I should point out here that the last Gold Rush Randonnée, held in late July 2005, was a scorcher. Riders had 100º and hotter weather every day of the ride. Compared to that, we were blessed with moderate heat. Nevertheless, something about the steepness of the ascent at the bottom caught me by surprise. The fact that the road leveled some wasn’t much help, as it still went up for some miles. I started to have that same schizophrenic experience that seems so common to me on these long rides. Indian Creek is gorgeous. It is a beautiful mountain stream, winding through small meadows, over peaceful waterfalls, through lovely forests of trees. But I couldn’t enjoy it. I could appreciate it, but that’s not the same. So, one side of my brain was expressing rapture (Look at this gorgeous stream, this beautiful mountain!), and the other was expressing frustration (Where the hell is that goddamned lake? When am I going to get there? Why is it taking so long?).

GRR route profile

GRR route profile (click for larger graphic)

It was at about this point that I realized I should have paid more attention to the route profile – the length and steepness of climbs and descents – than I did. Had I done so, I would have revised my estimated times between stops, and maybe planned a little better. In any case, I also started to notice I was having stomach issues. I had never had stomach issues on previous rides – at least, not during the ride. But I had lost my appetite for Clif bars and Clif Shots, which are my standard food. I also found that every sip of my electrolyte drink made my stomach twinge with a little pain. The only things I could take in were water and Perpetuem, a liquid complex carbohydrate formula. Not being able to eat is a bad sign.

Further up, the road steepened again. I climbed and climbed. Finally, I saw a dam. With a final push, I made it to the lake. But was the control right there? Hell no! We had to ride around the other side of fucking lake to get there. I was really starting to hate this course.

Man, was I happy when I finally made Boulder Creek. Not just for the rest, but also because my friend Jim Skeen, whom I ride with on the weekday rides, was working there. But as happy as I was to see Jim, it also made me realize that I was losing my edge. I was having trouble talking to him, and found I didn’t really have the energy to talk. I decided to lie down for a few minutes. He gave me an army blanket and I napped for about 20 minutes under the trees. I probably should have stayed longer, but it was not all that comfortable. Besides, I knew there was more climbing ahead, and I wanted to get that over with.

From Boulder Creek, the route winds up to the highest point on the course – an unmarked point at the top of Janesville Grade. It is a little over 8 miles from Boulder Creek, but in the condition I was in, distance was getting irrelevant. All I could really focus on was the steepness of the incline. I rolled along fine for a while. The road undulated, alternating quick descents with steep pitches that kept getting longer. After a while, the descents disappeared altogether, and it was all up to the top

I had started riding with a few others, and we were chatting to pass the time. One guy I talked to was Edward Robinson, a rider from Texas. He, like me, was an escapee from law practice. And like most ex-attorneys, channels his energy by committing his time elsewhere. He is president of the Lone Star Randonneurs, is their regional brevet administrator, and serves on the RUSA (Randonneurs USA) board.

At some point, we passed a couple of riders resting on the side of the road. They told us that, according to the mileage, they were sitting at the top of the hill, elevation 6340′, the highest point of the Gold Rush Randonnée. We braced for the screaming downhill sure to follow. (I don’t have any pictures of this part of the ride, which is a shame.  Check out Don Bennet’s.  He’s got some great ones.) And, yeah, the road did go downhill . . . for a little while anyway. Then uphill again. And down and up and down and up for a few more miles. I cannot convey how disappointing it is to get somewhere around mile 225 of a planned 250 mile day, expect a downhill, and be denied. It sucks.

Finally, we did reach the steep descent into Janesville on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Edward raced ahead of me. He was clearly more comfortable descending. I topped out at 42mph; I have no idea how fast he was going. At the bottom he said something very funny, I thought: I think I need a cigarette. I laughed, and appreciated the joke. But as we started rolling on flatter ground, I realized that I was shot. I could barely pedal up the rollers.

And this stretch from Janesville to Susanville is one of those obnoxious, pointless, frustrating patches of road that is just put into rides to piss you off. By everything that is right and good in the world, the control should be at the bottom of a nice long descent. You should be able to step off the bike invigorated and flushed with adrenalin. You should be backslapping one another and laughing about how you almost wiped out on the steepest curve. Instead, you still have to ride 15 miles from the town of Janesville to the control at Susanville, and like it or not, exhausted or not, you have to ride it to get there. Oh, and of course, there’s a fucking headwind. I believe I would not have made it to Susanville were it not for Edward coaxing me along. He stayed back with me when I crawled up the hills, lead me safely along Highway 395, navigated our way to the control. I told him to go on, but he said he was tired as well and didn’t mind riding slowly. His help was a gift.

I was thinking of how I’d explain the value of his help to the guys at home. Without Edward, I thought, I would have lain down by the side of the road in Janesville. Coyotes would eventually rip me apart limb by limb, then the vultures would have moved in. The riders returning home would find nothing but a bike and a skeleton off the side of the road in Janesville. But thankfully, Edward was there, so I kept rolling on.

By the time we hit Susanville, I was done. I mean done. Ready to quit the ride. I went inside the building to sign in and found it was 3:40 in the afternoon. I had been riding a little over 21.5 hours, and was only one hour and forty minutes behind my planned schedule. But that wasn’t really all that comforting at the moment. I thought about eating, and started to feel nauseous. The same thing happened to me at the end of the 600k. At the end of that ride, I leaned over to throw up and passed out in the dirt behind the Park ‘n Ride in Davis. I realized that being at a control was probably the safest place to pass out, but I wanted to avoid that scene.

I had rented a motel room just down the street. Looking around, I was really glad I had done so. The control was in a National Guard Armory. Picture an oversized gym stripped of any sports equipment, and that’s pretty much it. There was one shower, and several rows of cots right next to where people were checking in, eating, and talking. Not really a restful place. I lost sight of Edward, and in my fatigue, focused on just one thing: getting to my room before I got sick. I found my drop bag, strapped it on my back, and rode back down the street to the hotel.

I had a hell of a time checking in. The receptionist was spewing information at me and asking questions. It was all I could do to nod or grunt. I got into the room, took off my shoes, set my alarm for two hours, and went to bed.

This, dear reader, is what we cyclists call bonking. I have read about bonking, of course, and have seen it in others. The first time I saw it was on my first century – Foxy’s Fall century in 2006. I had talked my friend Mark Stout into riding it with me. After all, he’s the one who got me started cycling, loaned me his carbon Team Postal Trek, took me on my first ride. Mark is a natural athlete. He can do any sport better, faster, longer, and more gracefully than I. I thought Foxy’s would be a breeze for him. And sure enough, I chased his ass for 70 miles. It beat the crap out of me to keep up with him. But he bonked. He wasn’t able to eat enough to sustain his energy, and he limped home for the last 30 miles – the easiest, flattest part of the course. He didn’t smile, didn’t talk, and didn’t look anywhere but down or straight ahead. I had never seen him like that and I couldn’t understand what could make him feel that bad.

Lying in that bed in Susanville, I finally understood. Bonking isn’t getting tired. It’s losing everything. It feels as if something reached down out of the sky and grabbed your soul and ripped it out of your body. You have no energy, no will. You are done. Lying there in Susanville, air conditioning blowing away, I started to plan my way back to Davis. The problem was, there was no easy way to get back. No way could I ride up Janesville Grade. Maybe Greyhound? But then I’d have to pack the bike. Maybe Rick would come get me. Of course he would. But I didn’t want to ask.

I thought about going forward, but the prospect was bleak. There is a 7-mile, very exposed climb to Antelope Summit just to get out of Susanville, and that didn’t seem possible at the time. So instead of planning my return home, I tried to gauge how crappy I would feel if I gave up then. Surprisingly – or not surprisingly, perhaps – I didn’t think I’d feel crappy about it at all. It was sounding very sensible to me.

My alarm went off at 7pm. I lay still for a few minutes and took inventory. Incredibly, I thought I could move. So I tried. I could! I sat up very slowly. No headache, no real stiffness. I recalled reading over and over again how people get over bonking. Some rest, some food, some time, and they’re good to go again. I was starting to believe it might be true. I took a shower then changed into a t-shirt and shorts I had packed. I walked across the parking lot to the Black Bear Diner. All of Susanville decided to go to the Black Bear that night. I sat at the counter and it took 15 minutes to get a glass of water and another 20 to get my dinner. While I waited for dinner to be served, I posted a poem on Twitter that had been rattling around in my head. A haiku by Issa.

Katatsumuri
Fuji san o noboru
Soro soro de

Oh, Snail
Climb Mt. Fuji
But slowly, slowly

I posted it because it was a sort of mantra for the day. Also, my ability to do so was a sign to me that I was regaining lucidity. It was, finally, a sign to my wife, Lisa, who was following my progress via Twitter, that I was doing okay.

Finally, my dinner arrived. It was about the only thing without meat on the entire menu: some sort of tostada which was really shredded lettuce with tomatoes and cheddar cheese on some oversized deep fried piece of batter designed to look like . . . hell, I don ‘t know what. I just remember it was a big ugly piece of shit, so I dumped the salad onto my plate and moved the shell to the counter and chowed down.

And goddamn if they weren’t right! A little rest, sleep, and food, and you could get over bonking. I could feel the cloud lifting as I ate my salad. I finished the entire thing – something I could never do under normal circumstances – then went back to my room. I changed into new cycling clothes I had packed, double-checked all the items I had to do on my Outbound Checklist, and headed back to the Armory to check out. By the time I was rolling again, it was 8:30pm, just under 5 hours from when I had rolled in. Incredibly, I was only 30 minutes behind where I expected to be at this point.

I still can’t completely understand how I pulled out of bonking. I mean, I’ve read about it, and I know it’s a temporary condition. But at the time, it was so devastating that I couldn’t imagine feeling well enough to go outside, let alone consider riding another 250 miles before sleeping again. The RUSA guidebook says you need an “unwavering determination” to finish the ride to get over obstacles like this. Maybe. In my case, I think it was more of a flexibility: a willingness to let the ride go if necessary. An ability to wait and see how things developed rather than forcing myself to go on.

At least, that was true in Susanville on the outbound leg. A little later that same night, I did have to force myself to go on. But that was a different situation entirely. Had I known what the rest of the ride to Adin would be like, I may well have quit at Susanville.

Next: Susanville to Adin

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