By Cap'n John Ende
Well, I committed (see February 2005 American Randonneur). I signed up and showed up for the inaugural Cascade 1200.
The ride was organized by the active and experienced Seattle International Randonneurs. I became interested in the event as a way to see the Pacific Northwest. A second major draw was the way that the ride was to be conducted with group riding and common overnight stops.
Ultimately why I did the ride is still up for discussion. The why part of long distance riding is something that puzzles many supportive families and riders themselves. Are we trying to prove something? Are we searching for a label or identity? Is it a challenge that skirts the possibility of failure that draws some? I suppose that we have a variety of reasons, but one of them for me is meeting the people that are drawn to such madness.
The ride started from Monroe, a town 20 minutes to the northeast of Seattle. Of course, I lined up for the start with no sleep. Why can't I sleep before these events? I know that this pre-ride sleeplessness plagues other riders as well. Maybe it is my November birthday. Researchers have found that babies born in winter months have a tough time getting to sleep.
Terry Zmrhal gave us a quick pep talk and Mark Thomas led the peloton out of the sleepy town of Monroe, all 82 of us: 73 riders doing the 1200 and nine signed up for the 1000. The ride would be the same for both groups until the third day, when the courses diverged. It is thus impossible to do a consecutive 1000 and a 200 to complete the 1200 course as is an option at BMB.
The first day headed down the western front of the Cascades with two major climbs at the end. This was the day that really caught my attention on the route profile sheet. The first 30 or so miles were basically flat. My smile extended. Then some hills came. Then the rain started. The tricky thing when hills come 30 miles into a 750-mile ride is controlling your desire to fire up them. I particularly noticed Mark Thomas riding "his" pace. Mark was not trying to stay with anyone except himself. Wise example from a very experienced rider. I, on the other hand, tried to stay with my group up hills and would later suffer for it. Another lesson learned by my group was don't follow John Ende 60 miles into the ride when he misses a turn because he will take you three miles off course for an early bonus six.
After returning to the course we had a most unusual encounter with a parade in Buckley. The road we crossed was hosting the parade. We split the crowd and passed just in front of the marching band. I fumbled for my camera but missed this once-in-a-lifetime shot. We split the crowd on the far side and rode straight through the concessions. I thought about having a go at the ring toss but continued with my group instead.
Along this next section we were caught by Tim Sullivan and Linda Valadez who were in the process of riding back onto the main group after an early flat. Tim was hammering along and pulled all of us into the second control.
Our first feed stop came at the alternate control, Truly Scrumptious Bakery and Cafe, in Eatonville. Since our takeover and feeding frenzy at the bakery the town has been renamed to Eating-ville. Fresh bacon quiche and homemade white bean soup, along with a side of fresh fruit, two large chocolate chip cookies and Pepsi—just what the doctor ordered. My lipid loading group at this point consisted of myself, Mike Dayton and Dan Wilkinson. Both are good friends also from North Carolina. Both were in better shape than I and would continue to punish me throughout the event. I had talked Mike into signing up and he had in turn enlisted Dan. When my training did not go according to plan in the spring I thought about backing out. Unfortunately, by the time that I had decided to withdraw Mike and Dan had already purchased plane tickets and threatened me quite convincingly.
After the bakery stop Mike noticed that we were on a volcano escape route. This was both intriguing and concerning at the same time for a group of riders from North Carolina. In case anyone is wondering, we don't have volcanoes in the Tar Heel state. This section proved to be a low point for Mike. When pressed for what was bothering him, Mike responded, "Only everything physical and mental." He was pondering thoughts like, "Why am I here?" and "I feel this bad and there are still 650 miles to go, I'll never make it. Where is the van?" These fluctuations in performance and mental state are very interesting to me. A rider can suffer on one section and then on the very next perform well. This is exactly what happened to Mike.
Dan and I were hammering for our lives behind a rider named Scott Gater from Richmond, B.C., who would later attempt to set the Guinness Book records for most broken spokes in one event (4) and most number of kilometers ridden on a knobby mountain bike tire during a road event (85). Mike was behind us having some quiet time. He eventually caught up to us in quaint Morton before we turned left to head along beautiful Alder Lake. At this point all hint of rain and serious cloud cover was gone and the sun danced off the ripples of the lake.
At Randle we met our support crew at the control. This stop was particularly festive because in addition to our trusted sherpas, Mike's son Daniel and good friend Joe Ray Hollingsworth, we also met my family for the only time on the course. My supporters consisted of my three kids, Clare (8), Patrick (7) and Abbey (4) as well as my wife Amy. Seeing this crew gave us a real mental boost. We sat down in the grass for turkey sandwiches, strawberries, Red Bull, peanut butter and Ensure. This was the 140-mile mark and we knew that serious climbing was in our immediate future.
We said goodbye to the support and headed into the mountains. The section is basically broken into 26 miles up and 20 miles down. This first climb to Elk Pass (aka Windy Pass) was in daylight and passed through a lush green forest blanketed in moss with beautiful viewpoints overlooking Mt. Rainier. Mt Hood and Mt. St. Helens came into view on the descent. The scenery was jaw-dropping spectacular.
We dropped off the backside for a 12-mile tiered descent and cruised into the Northwoods control. SIR is an experienced randonneuring group. They know how to conduct controls. They saved their best each day for the last control before the sleep stops. Northwoods was my first encounter with volunteer Don Smith. He showed me to a comfy seat and took my drink and sandwich order. He plopped an ice cold Coke into my armrest drinkholder and proceeded to construct my made-to-order turkey, lettuce, tomato, cheese and mayo sandwich—complete with pickle—on the tailgate of a pickup truck. I was completely astonished at the number of volunteers and at their enthusiasm and know-how. While Don was playing short-order cook, Michael Rasmussen and Peter McKay had opened up a bicycle repair shop and were tending to riders' machines. Those guys were fantastic.
We left Northwoods in the twilight sporting our reflective gear. The sky was providing a deep blue background for the silhouettes of the towering fir trees. From the Northwoods control to Oldman Pass is 13.5 miles. The road immediately climbs mildly out of the control but this is only a taste of what lies ahead. After a right onto Wind River Road, the road turns into the sky and punishes riders for the next four miles before turning right again to a more gentle gradient leading to the summit. The gradient of the last climb proved to be more severe than the first but the length was less.
Before long we were at the top and grouping together for the dark descent into Carson. I spotted a deer on the descent but it stayed out of our path and we had an uneventful coast down, then a flat 15-mile spin into Carson. It was just after midnight when we arrived in Carson for the first of the common overnight stops. SIR had arranged for us to stay in the Carson Middle School. Our drop bags were laid out along with a rider- friendly food spread.
We showered, ate lasagna and were shown to our places on the gym floor. Riders without sleeping mats were on the school wrestling mats, while the rest of us were on the floor. The arrangements were quite satisfactory but for some reason I could not sleep, AGAIN! I could not understand it. I didn't sleep last night, then spent 18 hours on the bike and now couldn't sleep again. "Maybe I'm not cut out for this stuff," I thought. We had wake-up calls for 6 a.m. but I got up at 4 a.m. and ate, packed my drop bag and got ready to leave. Just as I was leaving Mike and Dan were waking and I told them that I would soft pedal until they caught me.
Directly out of the school we dropped down to the Columbia River. It was a spectacular sight at sunrise heading along the river, wind-aided, into the sun. I enjoyed this immensely and within an hour had been reeled in by Mike and Dan. When we left the river we began a series of climbs that would take us up into the high desert. We stopped at a secret control and proceeded on to the Goldendale control, where we munched fruit and sandwiches along with JoJos. We don't have JoJos back in N.C. but I noticed quite a few of the SIR riders getting them from time to time. They are like thick-cut homefries and, when buried in ketchup, make for a satisfying dose of sodium, carbohydrate and fat.
The next section had a bit of climbing over Satus Pass and with every gain in elevation the surroundings became more desert-like. The day was becoming hotter and the wind began picking up. In fact after several long climbs my most difficult time into the next control at Toppenish was toward the end on a relatively flat section that was into a headwind. Dan and Mike had left me to the vultures but I arrived at the next control un-pecked while they were still there grazing.
I tried to regroup quickly and we left together into the Rattlesnake Hills. There are no major climbs listed on this section on the cue sheet. No elevations marked. I had convinced myself that this would be a relatively easy section. How wrong can one be. I was bitten severely. The cue sheet should have had a skull and crossbones on it for this section. The physical beating was only outdone by the mental anguish of riding at full throttle on what appeared to be a flat road at 6-7 miles per hour. At least four riders that I spoke with had stopped to check their bikes on this section. Surely a brake was rubbing. Did I have a flat tire? Had gravity been turned up over this godforsaken dust-bin? If the mind bend didn't get you then there was the sun baking your shorts off without a tree for miles. If nothing else stopped you then tumbleweeds would be sent crashing into you or your bike. The gods were against us. The crosswind was vicious. It was a hot, dry unrelenting wind.
As I started to transform into cycling beef jerky, up ahead I saw a tent being dismantled. Was this a mirage? No it was Mark Thomas' family. They were providing a secret support and they could not have been a more welcome sight. I enjoyed talking with Mark's wife and two kids and felt re- energized after their most-needed support. Mark's wife even filled up my empty water bottles while I ate and rested. As I rode off I felt great admiration for Mark's family to give up their day a far way from home and sit in the middle of the desert playing guardian angel to a bunch of screwballs on bicycles. I know that they had a hundred other things they should have been doing. Mark's wife suggested that I look back and I finally realized that I had been climbing for miles.
The peak of this section was not far away and once I crested the top it was the fastest descent of my life. I was feeling quite proud of my near 50 mph when a rocket shot by, a tandem. The tandem topped out at 57 mph. The tandem was ridden by Charles Feaux and Davy Haynes. I caught them at the next turn. We began chatting and were quite pleased to realize that we were being blown uphill at 20 mph without pedaling. That, my friends, is the devil wind that I spoke of earlier.
By the time we reached the next control, Mike and Dan were polishing off a sit-down Mexican feast. I opted for the roadside feed since a rider's best friend, Don Smith, was manning the control. Melissa Friesen was Don's sous chef and served up a mean cup of noodles. To the soup noodles I added a Don special sandwich and Coke and was feeling fine by the time we left the control near darkness.
We left the control with Landon Beachy. After a short descent, Landon flatted twice. He had also flatted coming into the control. Landon had been struck by the rare but dreaded flatitis, not to be confused with flatus, which all of us had been overwhelmed by for days. We couldn't find any glass but there was an 8 mm through-and-through tear which we booted. After Mike finished playing in the stinging nettles we proceeded with forward motion. The boot held until near the next sleep control when Landon flatted for the third time on that section. Dan and I were down the road with the tandem but Mike stopped and gave Landon a spare tube.
The second sleep control was set up in the Quincy high school. I showered, ate delicious homemade chili and rice and then proceeded to the gym floor. Hallelujah, sleep came. I fell into a cavernous sleep state and slumbered for a luxurious 4 and 1/2 hours. When I awoke I was informed that Mike didn't sleep well and was leaving shortly. I understood completely. I was also informed that Dan was dropping out of the 1000 due to sore saddle syndrome—one of the most dangerous disorders to afflict long-distance riders. I had a fine breakfast but by the time I left, 7 a.m., I realized that I was nearly riding sweep for this event.
The first part of the third day was flat and through farmland; however, this level section was spoiled by a resurfacing project that had us following a pilot car through several miles of brand new chip-and-seal. I rode through the quiet town of Ephrata and then along Sagebrush Flats, a most enjoyable road through Moses Coulee. The Coulee has a prehistoric feel to it. I felt as if I were devolving. The sides are sheer rock walls and I felt as if we were riding along an ancient riverbed. We crossed four cattle guards and then climbed into Farmer.
Farmer may be named so simply because it consists of one farmer. As far as I could tell the whole of the town consisted of one building manned by SIR volunteers serving as our control. I munched sandwiches and chips and refilled the water bottles. Joe Ray and Daniel were there and told me that I had missed Mike by a half-hour. This would continue throughout the day. The support team at this point had been enlarged by one as Dan was now riding shotgun. I looked at his comfy position in the minivan and envied him. When I had suggested that I join the support crew on the previous day I was told there was no room. Now Dan was there riding shotgun and sipping Jack Daniels. No lie. He told me of his secret desire to consume hard liquor the night before coming into the Quincy control, but I had written that off to a delirious desire that often hits during the doldrums. Now he was living his dream. He was living it up and I was out here suffering.
Along the next section there was a series of rolling climbs that gained elevation before dropping off a wicked descent into the Columbia River gorge once more. On the rain-slick road of this most severe descent a Great Dane came bounding into the road while I was traveling 30 MPH. I braked to let him cross in front of me and then he ran alongside before I accelerated away. Major disaster averted. Along this section I began chatting with Ken Krichman. He was riding a beautiful Mariposa and told me that he lived in North Seattle. He has done quite a bit of long-distance riding, including PBP three times. He mentioned to me that at least one reason that he continues to do these events was that he wanted to see if he could finish. He has another reason for PBP: he loves France. I agreed with him completely. I asked him if he rode with anyone in particular and he told me that he had several riding buddies but that if they were on a ride together they would not necessarily ride together the whole time. He said they ride roughly the same pace and they know that they will see each other at various times during a ride but that each of them was helped by riding their own particular pace, not someone else's.
During this section shortly after leaving Farmer, we saw a rider heading back toward the control. I thought that he might have left his card, but as it turned out he was heading back to retrieve his water bottles. This rider turned out to be Scott Gater of broken-spoke fame. To give you some idea about our pace, Scott rode back onto us within 10 miles after retrieving his water bottles three miles back at the control.
We all had a nice break at a store along the river that Ken knew about. All three of us ordered JoJos and refueled for our next section, which was mainly flat. Along this section I also periodically rode with Dave Huggins-Daines from Pittsburgh, who had taken a train across the country to get to the event. Dave, I believe, was the one rider that I saw all four days of the ride. We finished within five minutes of each other. He dressed in black, rode a steady pace and made it a habit never to touch his brakes.
We cruised into the Malott control separately but dined together. This was another of the next-to-last controls and my man Don was there whipping up orders of sandwiches and chips. We chowed down and discussed the upcoming Loup Loup pass.
Loup Loup, I learned, would grab my attention early and hold it for a while. I was informed that Mike had passed through one-half hour earlier. He left me a message but no one could quite remember what the message was. I headed out just before Ken but then decided to wait on him as he was already readying his bike. This was a wise decision on my part since I would have ridden off in the absolute wrong direction. Ken and Dave got me on the right path up to Loup Loup and I started to feel good. No, not good, great. I was ingesting packets of Clif Shots every 20-30 minutes on the climb. I could literally feel the boost of each packet and also the slowing of my motor as the shots wore off. I imagined myself climbing up Highway 181 back in North Carolina and flew up the pass. One-third of the way up the rain began to fall and by the time I reached the top it was raining quite hard. I stopped very briefly, donned everything that I was carrying and began the dark rainy descent off the back side into the Methow valley. The descent was cold and hand-numbing but overall not as bad as I had expected.
After the descent, the ride continued through the Methow valley and through Winthrop, where we were encouraged to get dinner before proceeding to the overnight control in Mazama. The only problem for me was that by the time I cruised through all establishments were closed except for one biker bar. The wrong type of biker bar; in fact, I haven't come across the right kind yet. I made my way through the deer and into the control around 1 a.m. Several riders had just arrived after missing a turn in Winthrop and extending their adventure into the night. They were not happy.
My family had dropped off a bag of goodies earlier in the day and I really enjoyed seeing the pictures drawn by my kids. I was shown to my room along with my roommate, Bernie. In Mazama our accommodations were upgraded to an inn and we all had real beds. Extremely cushy, especially for a brevet.
I had intended to sleep until 5:30 a.m., when breakfast was laid out, but Bernie's wake up call came at 4 a.m. and thus I was awakened also. I got my things together, packed up my bags and located Mike. He had asked that I be placed in his room once I arrived but the message never got through to me. He was still sleeping soundly at 5:30.
I headed to breakfast. It was an opulent spread. Fresh fruit, pancakes, egg casserole, sausage, coffee, oatmeal, etc. It really outdid anything that I have ever encountered on a bicycle ride. I told Mike that I intended to soft pedal up the only remaining major climb and take plenty of pictures on our last day.
I was out earlier than most of the riders and therefore was able to photograph many of the participants as they rose up the last major climb heading to Washington and Rainy passes. The scenery was epic. The North Cascades are stunning with their sharp, snow-covered peaks and numerous waterfalls. The road was amazingly quiet except for the cyclists. Despite the climb, most of the riders wore smiles on their faces. Last days are like that: smile-inducing.
When I reached the pass I paused to take a series of photos. Just as I was packing up to leave, Mike arrived. We posed for a photo together and dropped off the pass for a short descent before finishing off the last climb of the event up to Rainy Pass. This one lived up to its name. Chris Ragsdale had told me earlier that morning that after Rainy Pass we basically had a 30-mile descent, followed by a flat century into the finish.
A few miles into this cold, rainy 30-mile descent there they were: SIR volunteers by the side of the road fixing up hot chocolates and cups of soup noodles. Best hot chocolate I've ever had. Interestingly, they also had a low-fat hot chocolate option although I saw no takers. At this stop we spoke with SIR rider Jim Sprague who was piloting a Raleigh Super Course which was painted a maroon similar to Mike's Silk Hope. The bike, as it turns out, was purchased for $5 at a sort of bike junkyard. This definitely won the award for least expensive steed in the herd.
As we continued our drop out of the North Cascades we were treated to some more breathtaking scenery. The wind began to pick up and we hammered into the Marblemount control.
This last bit of fast riding finished me off. Two days of no sleep followed by last night's less than two hours, in combination with all the climbing, finally dropped my tank to zero. When I say zero I am actually exaggerating because I wasn't even functioning as high as a zero level. I was falling off of Mike's wheel at 12-14 MPH in a dead flat. Sleepiness was overwhelming me. All circuits were shutting down.
I told Mike that I had to stop. I had planned on eating something at our stop but the cool green grass cried to me. "Come sleep," it said. I lay down and immediately was asleep. I was awakened one minute later by a conversation Mike was having with the owner of my grassy bed, who had wandered out to check her mail. She asked a few brief questions about my condition and then casually retrieved a few letters and headed back into her house. When I fell asleep for the third time inside of five minutes Mike woke me up and coached me back onto my bicycle.
We rolled along slowly until encountering "The Burger Barn." Now this looked like salvation. We were pleasantly surprised to find Tar Heel Burgers on the menu and although hailing from the Tar Heel state opted for their Classic Burger with cheese and a coke.
I retired to the restroom and found a cozy spot on the toilet. The bathroom was arranged so that a plywood wall was six inches in front of the toilet. Still wearing my helmet, I leaned my head forward while on the throne and fell into a deep and necessary slumber. I awoke with one of those "where the hell am I?" moments but quickly gathered myself together and rejoined Mike in the restaurant.
The cheeseburger was out of this world. While we were eating, one of the SIR members driving the course stopped in with another fellow. The other guy turned out to be a rider who had DNFed on day 1 due to an extended ride off course. He was still here cheering us on. I really can't stress how magnificent all of the volunteers were along the course.
After the cheeseburger I started to regain some strength, but 20 miles down the road this wore off and I began force-feeding myself anything that I thought I could stomach. At another low point, Mike raised my wife on his cell phone and an emotional boost was realized that fueled me into the next-to-last control at McDonalds. Ronald hit me with two more cheeseburgers, fries and a coke. That meal in combination with Mike's surplus gels fueled a mad dash into the finish back at the Holiday Inn Express in Monroe. There was a large enthusiastic group at the finish. Each rider was given a loud round of applause as he or she cruised in. I was enveloped by my wife and kids and was never so happy to see them in my life. The check-in was too brief. I really wanted to stay and mingle but sleep hit me like a brick and within 10 minutes I was in ZZZZZville up in my room. Our 6 a.m. wake-up call to make the ferry for the Gulf Islands would come too soon.
Overall the ride was extremely well done. The controls were fabulous. The common overnight stops were welcomed enthusiastically by everyone that I spoke with. The scenery left riders searching for words that somehow came up short. The course is challenging. Everyone that had done other 1200s rated this one the hardest that they had ever done. Personally I have only done PBP and can at least confirm that the Cascade 1200 is several notches harder than PBP. SIR is to be congratulated for all their hard work. Special recognition goes to Terry Zmrhal, Mark Thomas and Paul Johnson for their particular dedication.
Why do I do these rides? I don't know. They certainly beat up mind and body. I actually recovered faster and was in overall better shape after this than after PBP but that is a whole other story, already published in the RUSA PBP 2003 yearbook. The challenge is a definite reason. The scenery and exploration of the Pacific Northwest was another reason for me and I was not disappointed with the spectacular and varied scenery. Most of all I think that it is the camaraderie that comes from that common place of a group of humans taking on an unimaginable task to the every day ordinary Joe. The people riding these events are different, and that is what I like, different.