Sunday, July 5, 2015

StM: Birthday Challenge 2015

I have gotten a bit lax on birthday challenge execution over the past few years, which may have something to do with these new cubs that keep arriving around June 15. In any case, I had decided that this year was going to be different, and the challenge that I had in mind was riding my bike from Seattle to Mazama. We are in the process of building a cabin in Mazama so I have done the drive many times over the past few years, and often thought that it would make a great ride. The route is about 295 km in total (185 miles), and is pretty flat for the first 2/3 of it until you hit the North Cascades, then has some great climbing and spectacular scenery as you pass through the mountains with about 9000' of climbing in total (including all of the ups and downs, the high point is 5500' at Washington Pass).

I had actually semi-planned on doing this ride last year, but then I ended up spending about a month of the summer in Chamonix, France with no bike on hand (hooray for paternity leave!). I did a lot of trail running there but no riding, so when I got back to Seattle at the end of August I didn't have enough time to build any bike fitness before the end of the summer (my 2-mile bike commute to work didn't help matters much in that department either).

This year was different on two fronts though: firstly, no new cubs arrived in June, and secondly, I changed jobs in April and in doing so lengthened my bike commute from 2 miles each way to 17 miles each way. So, while I still don't have much time to ride, I get some built in training by going to and from work and as a result I was starting to feel like I should pull the trigger and go for it by the time my birthday in June rolled around.

We had a trip to Mazama planned for the June 20/21 weekend so I had initially planned on doing the ride then, but decided to push it back by two weeks due to a nagging Achilles tendon issue that I was still getting over. I had been getting in decent cycling volume due to my commute (though I don't usually ride both ways, probably averaging doing the ride about 5 times per week) and some good intensity in the Thursday evening criteriums at Seward Park that I have been trying to get out to regularly, but I hadn't really done any long rides so as a test of my ability to sit on a bike seat for long periods I did the classic Sultan Bakery ride the week before on Saturday, June 27. This ended up being 106 miles with 6000' of climbing and I felt fine, so that was a good sign for the StM adventure.

The route I would take spends a fair bit of time on pretty busy roads with high speed limits (60 mph) which was a bit of a stinker, but there aren't any other options to get across the North Cascades and the shoulders are pretty decent in most places. Still, in the interests of being safe I decided to prepare by getting a yellow fluoro bike jersey, and in the interests of not looking like a complete dork I decided to make sure it was made in Italy by Castelli. The bright yellow jersey arrived two days before the ride, as did my high-cut yellow fluoro socks, another nod to being seen by crazed motorists towing RVs on the July 4th long weekend. One other challenge I was up against was that it looked like it would be pretty hot on the day I would ride (Friday, July 3), with a forecasted high of 102 F in Mazama (yikes!). This was not ideal, but I knew there were streams, rivers, and lakes that I could jump in along the way, and I prepared further by getting insulated water bottles that I could fill with slushies at gas stations along the way.

My alarm went off at 4:45am on the day of reckoning, and after remembering why I was getting up so early I headed upstairs for the breakfast of champions (oatmeal, fruit, and yogurt) and a cappuccino before heading out the door and jumping on my bike at 5:15am. The sun wasn't quite up yet but it was completely light out and a perfect temperature of 67 F as I headed north on the Burke Gilman trail. As you might expect there were not many other trail users out at this hour, so fortunately I didn't have to dodge the usual masses of rollerbladers and dog walkers as I made my way up to Bothell. From Bothell I took a few back roads  to continue north before dropping down into the Snoqualmie Valley and heading up to Snohomish. It was a bit hard to take photos, but here is one I took of my shadow as I rolled through some nice fields in the early morning sun:

From Snohomish I picked up the Centennial trail which is an old rail road grade that has been paved as a multi-use trail (and thus is dead flat) and would amazingly take me all the way north to Arlington where I would pick up SR 530 and from thereafter would be on the route that we normally drive. The Centennial trail was amazing, dead flat, totally deserted since it was still early, and complete flat. Did I mention that there were no hills? The miles clicked by really quickly, even more so because at the start of this section I met another rider who was also out on a long-ish ride and we chatted most of the way. The funniest part of the conversation was an interchange in which he asked me where I was headed and I told him I was headed to Mazama. He didn't sound surprised at all, and as a rejoinder he asked me if I would do more riding once I got there. I told him that the 185 miles of riding to get there would probably sate my desire to ride for at least a day or two, and I hadn't planned any other big rides for the rest of the holiday weekend. Funny!

It was nice to hit Arlington because the landmarks were then familiar, and I rolled along SR-530 through Oso and the other small towns with a nice tailwind at my back. After about 128 km and 5 hours in the saddle I rolled into Darrington, and I decided it was time for a break. I headed into the IGA where I realized two things: the locals in Darrington are a lot different then the locals in Capitol Hill, and they didn't have a very good bakery. I debated for a while and eventually decided to go with a cookie-based nutrition plan for the day, so I purchased 4 different cookies (and a donut for good measure), some sort of weird cold coffee/energy drink beverage that I will never drink again, and a lemon-flavored Powerade with a disgusting after taste (it turns out it was on sale for a very good reason). I enjoyed these culinary delights at a picnic table in the shade with a great view across the parking lot of Whitehorse Peak (which I need to climb sometime):

After finishing my cookies and juice I managed to wrench myself away from the entertaining interchanges between the locals in the parking lot and jumped back on my bike, heading for Rockport and the junction of SR-530 with SR-20. I still felt quite good, especially since there hadn't been any climbing to speak of yet, with biggest challenge being that my seat was getting a little uncomfortable. It hadn't gotten too hot yet either, and there were good amounts of shade on the side of the road I was on so the riding was quite pleasant as I rolled along the river with views of the mountains to come:

I arrived at Rockport 20 miles after leaving Darrington, and continued west on the road that I would stay on for the entire rest of the way to Mazama. This road wasn't much busier than the SR-530, and luckily most of the cars came in climbs with about 10 vehicles that wished they were driving faster all stuck behind someone in a camper going 50 mph. There was still a fair bit of shade also, here I am still enjoying a pleasant cruise on mostly flat roads:

I passed through Marblemount before continuing on to Newhalem, where I decided it was time for another break both because it had been 2-3 hours since my last one, and because this was the last town before the real business of the north cascades started (actually the last town before Mazama, and not really even a town since all it has is a general store). The Newhalem General Store had even fewer options than the Darrington IGA so I decided to roll with a similar theme and purchased three cookies, some sort of raspberry bar, another cold coffee drink (but this time not hybridized with an energy drink), some lemony soda, and a green gatorade of indeterminate flavor (but it might have been sour apple if I had to guess, and it tasted much better than the Powerade). I unbuckled my shoes and sat down to enjoy my spread in front of the big black locomotive that they have on display:

I thought I had a similar amount of food to what I had put down in Darrington without any issues, but I must have either been not as hungry or just overdosing on cookies because after the pumpkin flavored one and the ginger-raisin one I totally ran out of steam and had to put the double chocolate one and the raspberry bar in my pocket for later. I had also overestimated my need for liquid as I was feeling totally fine before even starting the giant "Squirt" soda that I had purchased. However, I knew that I still had about 50 miles of riding to go in the hottest part of the day with almost all of the climbing and no chance to fill up with water from a reliable source (plenty of mountain streams though), so I forced myself to down about 3/4 of the giant Squirt soda before tapping out and pouring out the rest. I would later come to realize that force feeding yourself carbonated drinks and cookies is not the best way to start a ride through the north cascades on the hottest day of the year, but in the moment I just enjoyed one last look at the big black train, climbed on my bike, and started pedaling.

Upon leaving Newhalem the road immediately pointed up, so I unzipped my jersey (with a full length zipper, of course), clicked into my lowest gear, and started grinding along. Pretty soon I realized that it was stinkin' hot, and soon after that I started having opportunities to eat those cookies all over again as they started making their way back up my digestive tract, no doubt aided by the propulsive forces of the "Squirt" carbonation coming out of solution. Fortunately none of this actually made it out of my mouth onto the road, and I had eaten the cookies recently enough that they still tasted pretty good so I just enjoyed it for what it was and kept on pedaling, likely with a bit more of a pained expression then I had earlier on the flatter and cooler sections:

I took a break at the Diablo Lake overlook after a particularly hot and unshaded section, right after seeing a sign that warned about severe sidewinds ahead and thinking that actually sounded pretty good since if they didn't blow me off the road they would probably be pretty effective at cooling me down. After sitting in the shade for about 5 minutes at the overlook I decided it was time to roll along, so I continued on my way. Luckily I had driven this so many times that passing familiar landmarks provided good motivation.

An hour or so after the stop at the overlook I could feel my energy starting to fade, and I recalled a recent blog post I had read from someone who attempted a 50 mile run through the South Dakota badlands a week or so earlier. It sounded like the guy had almost passed from this world on account of dehydration and heat exhaustion, but the thing I remembered was that he had talked about finding shallow pools of water and feeling really good after sitting in them. The the realization hit me: I am riding by cool mountain streams every 15 minutes or so, why the heck aren't I stopping to sit in them?!? So, shortly after that I took my first creek break at "County Line Creek", where the steep and rocky nature of it made it a bit too awkward to sit in but I was able to repeatedly dump waterbottles fill of cold water over my head and feel really good and re-energized as a result.

It also helped that by this time the cookies were no longer making their presence known, so I downed an energy gel and hopped on my bike with renewed vigor (or at least as renewed as you can be after sitting on a bike in the sun for 9 hours). I chugged on for another hour or so before my next creek break which felt even better, since at the previous one I had made efforts to keep my bike shorts dry in the interests of avoiding chafing while at this one I abandoned all notions of keeping any part of my body dry (except for my shoes, socks, and jersey which were removed prior to the creek dip). I once again was able to re-tap my energy reserves and started rolling again, cresting Rainy Pass at 4800' before too long.

From Rainy Pass the road drops sharply before again starting to climb up toward Washington Pass, and as I worked my way up the final grade I heard shouts of "Allez, allez, allez!!" behind me and turned my head to see the welcome sight of a dark blue Subaru containing my lovely wife and our two cubs rolling up behind me. Roanne pulled over on the shoulder and I stopped for a chat with her and the cubs, and also traded the cookie and raspberry bar that I had been carrying for some water since I had just run out of my reserves from Newhalem and had been about to start drinking the two full bottles of creek water that I had filled up. After waving goodbye I had a brief period of motivation from the contact with my fan base but then started to get really hot and tired again, at which point I started using a new technique where I would squirt water from my bottle onto my head as I rode, which felt amazing.

Before long I had crested Washington Pass and I buckled in for the long mostly-downhill stretch to Mazama. This was a great way to finish since there wasn't that much pedaling in the final 20 km or so from Washington Pass to Mazama (or was it 20 miles? I can't remember) though I did notice the temperatures rising a lot as a I dropped toward the floor of the Methow Valley. I could still turn the pedals and luckily hadn't had any real physical issues (my legs threatened to cramp a number of times, but never actually did), and as I turned into the Chechaquo Loop and onto Trailside Road I still had enough coordination to post up for an often-practiced rarely-used victory salute:

That evening we enjoyed the Mazama night life at Beer-and-Bratwurst night at the Mazama store, and the rest of the long weekend was spent relaxing in the hammock (look closely and you'll notice Miss Etta pretending to read her "Frozen" story book in between my legs, with "Pinkalicious" on deck beside her):

As well as trying unsuccessfully to keep Cleo out of the dirt:

And coaching Etta on the new dirt jump track we are building at the edge of Chechaquo meadow:

So, there you have it. Another year, another birthday challenge in the books, and a really long blog post that I doubt anyone will actually read except for my brother-in-law Beno. Here is the ride detail: