By Foot Soldier Donn King
The Gold Rush Randonnée, or GRR (pronounced grrrrrrr), started at 1800 hours Monday evening in Davis, California. It was in the low 90's, but not nearly as hot as it had been a few days earlier, so everyone was feeling lucky. Also, there was a pretty decent tailwind out of the south and it looked like it might blow us all the way to Oroville, a hundred miles up the valley to the north. Oroville would be the first control and the first official stop on the ride. Non-randonneurs (and many randonneurs) often ask, why start at the end of the day? Here is my explanation, although it is unofficial: By starting in the evening, riders are fresh for the first night. The succeeding dawn and daylight brings a boost of energy and alertness that will carry the rider through the day, and probably well into the second night. If the event started in the morning, the rider would already be tired by nightfall, and the first night would be difficult to get through. The rider would then have to sleep during some of the daylight hours of the second day, thereby wasting daylight hours in sleep. Most experts and veterans recommend not sleeping in an event of this length before 400 KM (250 miles). Since this takes the average rider at this level around 20 hours, sleeping would occur sometime during the afternoon of the second day, a waste of daylight.
After 100 miles of dead flat riding through the Central Valley Monday evening and into the night, we hit the climbs at about 01:00, Tuesday morning. From there, the course essentially climbed for the next 200 miles. Not always steep mind you, but continuous, and sometimes very steep. After that, the terrain leveled out to the turnaround. Then level back from the turnaround to the mountainous section, and then 100 miles of flats back to the Start/Finish. So the beginning and the end were easy, the middle of the ride was the killer. Of course, you don't know the course until you ride it, so the outbound mountainous part was demoralizing because it was so tiring and seemingly infinite.
Overall, the course had less climbing than Paris-Brest-Paris, the classic French Randonnée, but all of the climbing on the GRR was concentrated in the middle, and these were mountains, not hills as you find in northern France, so the pitches were steeper and longer. The official altitude gain was listed at 26,000 ft, but riders reported 29,000 ft. from their handlebar altimeters.
This middle, mountainous section took me from 01:00 Tuesday AM to 23:30 Tuesday night. When I got to Adin, the control at the end of the mountainous section, I was very demoralized. I was tired, it was dark, and the route had gone through some very empty, desolate high desert. Without doing the math, because I wasn't that rational, I began to decide that I wouldn't be able to finish the ride. This was only about 30 hours into the ride, and my mind was swirling around, looking for ways out of this discomfort and desolation. I knew that my wife Sally would be at the control (she was part of the support crew for the event, stationed at Adin), and I was figuring out ways for me to quit there (yes, that awful "Q" word) and go home with her. Like I said, I hadn't done the math---didn't want to really---I just wanted to quit. (Later, I would find that I was 8.0 hours ahead of the closing time for the control---plenty of time in the "bank").
I arrived at the Adin control at 23:30 or so and checked in. Sure enough, Sally was there and so was our friend Charles, who rode PBP in '99. Almost the first thing out of my mouth was, I didn't think I was going to make it. I know I had a real deer-in-the-headlights look on my face. As a control worker, Sally had already been at the control for 12 hours and had seen a lot of exhausted riders come and go and heard the stories, but she also knew that I had lots of time and that my outlook would change once I had some food and rest. After all, at that point I had been on the bike for 30 hours with no sleep. Since she was on staff, she had a room that she shared with other staffers, and once I was fed she said I should sleep. I was nervous about taking the time, but at the same time I didn't care, because I thought I was out of the event, so what the hell?
I slept for four hours and when I got up I felt much better and was ready to go. I found that I had lots of time and everything was OK again. I was then, and continued throughout the ride, to be so grateful to Sally and how she took care of me. Actually, grateful doesn't quite cover it. I was and am quite capable of becoming tearful up when I think of what her presence there in Adin meant to me.
Adin was the most "French" of all of the controls. It was in a community center in a very small town, and the townspeople ran the kitchen. As soon as a rider checked in and got his or her card stamped, a young boy named Edward, about 8 or 9 years old, would appear with the rider's drop bag. Next he would get the rider's food order. He was everywhere, but all of the control workers at every control were like that. Sally wanted to take Edward home, but his Dad said he didn't think that we could afford to feed him. The food was like the French controls too: potatoes, pasta with cheese or red meat sauce, bread, soup, and eggs. The usual rest stop fare is fine, but it was nice to get something that tasted a lot like home cooking. I hated to say goodbye to Sally and Charles because I had relied emotionally on them so much, but I was ready to get back in the chase. That was Wednesday morning. In fact, this would be my best day. I got up at 04:00, Wednesday morning, ate breakfast at the Adin control, and hit the road in the dark, still almost 3 hours ahead of the minimum pace.
I covered a lot of ground on Wednesday, including getting to the turnaround and all the way back to Susanville. Many official randonneuring courses are "out and backs," meaning that the return (or inbound) route is the same as the outbound, sometimes with minor variations. At the Davis Creek turnaround, 380 miles out, we were within 20 miles of the Oregon border. Take a look on a map of California and see how incredibly far it is, even as the crow flies, from Davis to the Oregon border! But oh, sweet turnaround! The knowledge that the distances are all now going to be getting smaller is a tremendous psychological boost. On an out-and- back ride, during the outbound journey, every descent is bittersweet because the rider knows that the downhill that he or she just enjoyed will become a climb on the way back. After the turnaround that is no longer true. Now every downhill can be enjoyed for what it is, and every hill climbed will be behind you forever. Furthermore, the turnaround at Davis Creek was over 5000 feet above sea level, and Davis at the Start/ Finish is at essentially 0 feet. That means that the way home would not be equal in effort to the way out. We had climbed 5000 more feet going out than we would have to climb to get back. About then riders were thinking: "Why, I can almost coast home." There was an air of celebration at the turnaround, but it was just a teeny bit early to break out the champagne, with 370 or so miles to go. Not exactly an afternoon bike ride.
For some reason, there were thousands of small grasshoppers on the road just before Davis Creek, and seagulls from Goose Lake had come out to feast on them right off of the highway. Several seagulls had already been hit by cars on the busy road, the famous US 395 that runs along the eastern Sierra, practically the entire length of California. I was hoping that this wasn't a symbol.
When I arrived at the Alturas control on my way back, Tim Johnson, a worker at the control noted that I was consuming a lot of pharmaceuticals there, dipping deep into their Bag Balm, Ibuprofen, and coffee supplies. Certainly I must have been personally responsible for keeping an entire shift working at the Ibuprofen factory, since I relied on it heavily to control foot pain, saddle soreness, sore knees, and stiff neck. At the Alturas control I believe I invented using Hammergel, a thick, sweet, complex carbohydrate syrup, on oatmeal. It was available in large supplies at the controls, and I would squeeze it liberally onto my oatmeal in Alturas, both outbound, and then a short time later, inbound. Peggy Rex convinced me to try some peanut butter on top of the whole thing, and it wasn't half bad.
One of the major goals for the successful rider in an event of this length is to take in enough calories. At a burn rate of around 500-700 calories an hour, it requires simple math to realize that a rider has to stay very focused on his or her caloric intake. A typical sports nutrition bar is only 230-250 calories. Imagine eating one per hour, which is a struggle to remember to do, let alone to carry and manage the bars while riding. After several hours of riding, a substantial caloric deficit begins to build. This is a virtue and also the curse of ultra distance cycling: it supports, in fact demands, excessive eating. This caloric burning continues while the rider is off of the bike for breaks, and even during periods of sleep. Once set in motion, the metabolism of an ultra distance cyclist doesn't stop, actually continuing some days after the event is finished. I think of my metabolism as a rapidly spinning disk in one of those glass electric meters on the side of the house, when all of the lights in your house and lots of heat producing appliances are running all at once.
On the road from Alturas back to Adin I ran into thunder and lightening and hail and rain. The rain was very cold and the lightening was truly frightening, since I was riding through open high desert, perched up on a bicycle: the only exposed object for miles around. I was very dubious about the safety of riding out there and hoped that I wouldn't end my days on that bike ride, having been struck by lightening. It was here that I caught up with Jim Bradbury and Lois Springsteen, and they invited me to join them. We would ride together off and on, and mostly on, for the rest of the return journey.
I saw Sally again on my way back through Adin. She ran out to me when I pulled in and I was very happy to see her. Again, I had been anticipating seeing her for hours. A little later, it was hard to leave the control because she was there, but I was feeling so much better than I had felt when I arrived in Adin during the outbound portion, that there was a part of me that was even anxious to get going. I wanted to take on the dreaded Adin-Susanville section. This was the section that had so undone me on the way out. I was feeling so strong that now that I welcomed it, daring it to bring me down. In fact, I was not deluded. I had more than enough energy to ride it strong and happily, rejoicing in my strength. Generally, in an event of this length, I have a day like this one, and not usually the first day, when I feel at my best, unbeatable. This had been the day, and now this was the evening. I felt alert and strong, enthusiastic. Even with a long break at Dee and Larry Burdick's lonely outpost on Eagle Lake, I was able to go through that section almost one and a half hours faster than I had coming out. As an added bonus, Don showed up at the Eagle Lake outpost with two hot pizzas that he had gone to Susanville to get, a half hour each way by car. That night at Susanville, I took my second and last sleep of the ride. This gave me a grand total of 8.5 hours of sleep during the entire event. Tomorrow morning would bring the dreaded Janesville ascent.
I left the Susanville control a little after 0600 with the famous father and son team of Steve and Jason Buck. I got my first and only puncture just out of Susanville and had to let them go on. Twenty minutes later, I caught up with them at the bottom of the Janesville Grade. Which turned out to be overrated. It was steep, but not long, and my triple chainwheel setup provided more than enough low gears to climb it easily. Just past the top of the grade we arrived at the "Top of the GRR," about 6300 ft. From here it was supposedly all downhill, but something in me always avoids getting too excited at moments like this---we still had over 200 miles to go! True, there was a lot of downhill into the Indian Valley near Greenville, but it was also very hot, and the loop around the Indian Valley before the Greenville control was tedious torture to me. My euphoria from the previous day was not accessible, and I ground out those last few miles to the Greenville control, thinking that they would never end. Outbound, I had been riding with Mitch Ashley, and we talked our way through the entire Indian Valley loop and it had seemed to go by in a few minutes. Now there was no Mitch to talk to and I had almost 580 miles in my legs. When I got to Greenville this would be my last contact with Sally. I never really came around at that control. I was too tired and it was too hot. After the control, the downhill slope of the land from Greenville to Tobin was a geographical concept only, as a brutal headwind made it necessary to pedal the entire way to the Tobin Control. It was hot and the traffic was bad on Hwy 70. However, at the Tobin control the irrepressible Lynn Hunter and calm, big Dan Magaw made it all go away for a few minutes.
After that however, the push was on. All that stood between us and the Central Valley was the Jarbo Gap, and after all the climbing that we had done, this would be easy. Jim, Lois, Peter and I had no problem with Jarbo and kept going until we got to Oroville, right about dusk. A note about Peter from Richmond, VA: he had such a bad saddle sore that he was forced to stand all the way from Tobin to Oroville, a distance of 44 miles. Furthermore, although he stopped for the night and rested in Oroville and we didn't see him again until the finish, he apparently rode the rest of the distance without sitting down, another 80+ miles. Peter didn't get the Most Determined Rider Award, but he had to have been a strong candidate.
There was very unique food at the Oroville control, and I had been anticipating it for hours, even days. Lorna Toyota's mother made these big sticky rice balls wrapped in seaweed. They were sweet and salty and sour and had the ability to slide down your gullet without passing Go and without collecting $200. As soon as I got to the Oroville control I went looking for them. Lorna's mom was busy making some in a back room. I threw down about six of them and I was ready to go. Lois was chafing to be off. Just before we left, Chris Wilby dismantled his entire pack in the Oroville control parking lot just to give me a packet of chamois butter---my last application of the ride, and a good thing too because I had been sitting on a lawn chair on a piece of cardboard, and when I got up it looked like a brown sack that had held a dozen donuts. That's how greasy my shorts were from all of the Bag Balm. I should say a few words about Bag Balm: it was originally developed to control the dryness and chaffing of dairy cows' teats, which become irritated with the friction of milking. It is very popular with cyclists because it can reduce or eliminate the friction of the shorts against skin that results from the tens of thousands of pedal strokes and the resulting movement of the rear end on the saddle. For a hundred miles or so this isn't a problem, but after that nearly everyone suffers from this problem to some degree, and Bag Balm is the preparation of choice. It smells wonderfully like a barn, and is said to have antiseptic properties. It's also great for chapped lips. Some cyclists use it on toast, and others claim to be able to tell the future in the swirls and whorls of the goo inside the tin.
Surprisingly, when the sun went down, as we left Oroville, it quickly grew very chilly. That was a surprise because we were now back in the Central Valley, and no one expected it to drop below 75 degrees the entire night. Luckily, I had enough clothes, having toted them through the entire ride. Now I put on everything that I owned, including the Buff, a nylon piece of headgear that Herman Mandemakers from the Netherlands had sent me after PBP, where I had admired his. Fifty miles later we were at the last control, the only secret control and a unique one at that. It was down below a levee on the Sacramento River, about 15 miles from Knight's Landing. Mary Woodside and her group had established the control under some trees. A Coleman lantern burned in the dark. Cots were available and blankets, and Dave Leonard and Jim Bradbury lay down for 20 minutes and closed their eyes. Both of them had gotten badly sleepy between there and Oroville. I had been sleepy too, but not dangerously so. I ate three helpings of Mary's homemade apricot cobbler and two brownies, and drank three cups of coffee. A sandwich too and some cookies, I think, and maybe some other stuff, but I don't remember. Mary gave us backrubs and then kicked us out before we got too comfortable. We roused ourselves with difficulty, grumbling, and prepared for the last 38 miles to Davis.
Jim took over, driving us hard all the way to Davis. It was dead flat and I think we made pretty good time over the last leg. Dawn was breaking as we flew by Woodland, bringing to a close the fourth and final night of the GRR. We arrived on the outskirts of the fabled city of Davis and tried hard to slow down so that we could savor the victory over distance, fatigue, mountains, severe weather, hunger, saddle sores, and the desire to give up. Davis was still asleep. No one lined the roads, and there were no brass bands to welcome us, but as we pulled into the final control at the Boy Scout Cabin at the end of F street, the control workers led by Mark and Barbara came out clapping and cheering. It was 05:45 Friday morning, and we were finished, with a time of 83:45. We got our times and our control cards stamped and the ride was over.
Why did I do it? The question is inevitable. Here are my reasons: First, the need for a goal, a big goal that stretches me, but one that I believe I can attain. I need a goal that motivates me, and forces me to stay in good physical condition, a quality that I value highly. Secondly, I believe that doing rides of this length and difficulty is probably driven by the need of the Hero/Warrior archetype in my character to find expression. I have never been to war, and it occurs to me that cycling these distances creates an outlet for that archetype's instinct for bravery and overcoming adversity that has been expressed by soldiers in wartime. Sometimes preparing for an ultra-distance bike ride feels like preparing for battle. There is the requisite risk and danger, though certainly at a much lower level of both than was ever endured by a soldier in war. I prepare for the ride as though it will be my last.
And certainly, I find the praise of my cycling peers and friends to be very sweet, and the return to ordinary life something of a letdown following an event of this difficulty. There is a larger-than-life feeling to an ultra-distance cycling event, and a need to dig deep and test oneself that just usually isn't present in everyday life.
It's an opportunity to find out just how gritty I really am.