Death Ride


Note: Crabby is futzing around in Toronto this week and may or may not be back later on with a post of her own. She may also be tossing a few random trip photos up on the sad little Cranky Fitness Facebook page if you're really bored.

However, Crabby has left the blog in excellent hands today with an exciting account of, you guessed it, the Death Ride! The cool thing is that this way, you can go along for the ride yourself without experiencing sunburn or a sore ass or an untimely death.

So please welcome one of our favorite Cranketeers...

Death Ride Grandma! Take it away, DRG!!


Death Ride? Death Ride???

Why would anyone sign up for a ride with that name?

It’s a very popular ride. It accepts 3500 registrations, and around 3000 actually show up and try to ride it. It sells out within hours of opening the registration process. Yes, there are that many crazy people out there.

It says on the website that it involves 129 miles of riding with a total accumulated elevation gain of 15,000’. These exaggerations! From all I have seen and heard, it is only about 123 miles, and the climbing may be closer to 14,000’. It starts in Markleeville, California. It involves riding up and down both sides of Monitor Pass, both sides of Ebbetts Pass, and the east side of Carson Pass, plus any local roads required to get from one pass to the next. Plus returning to the start just when you think you’re through.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t finish.


My bicycling habit came to me late. I was 51 when I first got on a road bike. I fell in love, and found myself doing increasingly challenging and long rides. 25 miles, 40 miles, 100 kilometers, 100 miles. Phew.


At about the same time, I began to run a bit. First a 5k, then Bay to Breakers (12k). I got a bit nervous. I think people who choose to run 100 miles are not using the best possible judgment, but I was beginning to realize that these things sneak up on you. So I –sort of jokingly – said to people I knew, “Well, at least I will never swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco, or run a marathon, or (ha, ha, ha) do the Death Ride!”

I stuck to that for several years. Then, less than a year ago, I was on a work trip that involved driving to Fresno, and ended up with a day to spare. I’d heard a lot about the beauty of the eastern Sierras, and I decided to take the slow route from Reno to Fresno. Along the way I saw signs to Markleeville (I knew plenty of people who’d actually done the Death Ride, so I knew the name of its home town). Soon after that, I saw guys on bikes riding along on those beautiful roads. And I thought maybe the ride wasn’t such a bad idea. Really. That was all it took to make me cast restraint to the wind.

Time to train.

I was pretty sure I’d only do this once, so I needed to give it all I could and try to finish the whole thing. Intervals (moderate intensity); gradually increasing the length of the training rides, up to a double metric (200 kilometers, about 120 miles) with about 11,000’ of climbing; bike skills – what to do when the very tired rider just in front of you drops a water bottle; and weight loss. Although I was content with my weight, I figured I could afford to lose a few more pounds, and thought that the less I had to haul up all those mountains, the better. So I lost a little over 5 pounds very, very gradually.

I thought my list was complete until my husband and I decided to take a little trip to Markleeville and explore the course. Altitude. Wow. It really makes a big difference. Hills that looked easy suddenly sent my heart rate shooting up to decidedly unsustainable levels. Uh oh. Now what?

I did a little more research and decided I would attend a couple of training camps so as to get familiar with the route, and spend a little time getting adjusted to the altitude. Oh, yes, there are training camps just for the Death Ride. Try googling “Near Death Experience.” If you look closely, there is one listing that has nothing to do with bright lights or tunnels or inner peace (especially not inner peace). And Alpine Altitude Adjustment. I was there.



And, icing on the training cake, we decided to spend some vacation time at 7000’. Like I said, I only planned to do this once. I went all out.

At the end of June, we headed off to Colorado. After ten lovely days there, we drove back to Markleeville where I spent two days waiting, waiting.

At 4:30 AM on July 13, my husband dropped me off at the start.

It was eerily beautiful. Pitch dark, not even a moon, and hundreds of bicycles (you can start just about any time you choose, so a few had started even earlier, and the fast guys would not head out until maybe 6:30 or so) with headlights and flashing blinky lights, all headed down the road to Monitor. An occasional voice, “On your left!” or “Car up!” But mostly just the sound of all those skinny tires rolling along the pavement breaking the early morning stillness.

Soon we were on our way up Monitor. It felt quite easy, very different from my first attempt. The sun had crept up over the mountain by the time I reached the summit, but it was still quite chilly. Volunteers placed a sticker on my bib number. One down, four to go. I stopped to eat a bit. I headed down the east side. That is one fun descent! It’s 9 miles, and most of it is a pretty steady 7-9% grade, and there are few sharp turns so you can pretty much let go. I am small, so I reach my maximum speed on a descent at a realtively low speed. Bigger riders whiz past me when my gears have given all they have, and only gravity remains to help. But you know what? That thin air lets you through faster. So I spent a fair amount of time at 40mph plus.

But then, of course, you get to the bottom and you just have to turn around and get back to where you started. Actually, that spot is so remote that they give you your second summit sticker at the bottom. There is really no reasonable way to get back to Ebbetts Pass other than the official route.

By the way, this is such a big event that the roads over Monitor and Ebbetts are closed for enough hours to allow almost everyone to do the first four summits with no motor vehicles other than the few support motorcycles and (gulp) ambulances that cruise the course. And they, of course, are not impatient to pass the cyclists. The ride is held to support Alpine County, the least populous county in California. As of the 2010 census, the population is 1,175. The size? 738 square miles. Persons per square mile, 1.6. Registration fees bring in over $400,000. After costs, the Death Ride supports some pretty major educational projects for the county. Perhaps the event name gives the wrong impression.

Look, I needed stuff to think about as I climbed, and climbed, and climbed some more.

So we’re headed back up Monitor Pass. It’s about 7 in the morning, I have my second sticker and I am busy earning it. It’s still beautiful, still on the chilly side, which sure beats the 90+ degrees that greet riders some years. But there’s always something. I’m blaming the chill for the little twinge of cramp I felt in one leg as I reached the summit. It was no big deal, but I didn’t expect to feel anything like that so soon. I stretched it out, ate a bit more, and barreled down the second very fun descent.

Back to the intersection of Highways 4 and 89 for the second time. Stop. Eat. Shed a layer or two & replace them with sunscreen. Stretch a bit. Eat a few pieces of coffee-laced candy. Head up Ebbetts Pass.

That one is my favorite. It's the longest, 13 miles to the top, but it is also the most varied, the one you'd like least in a car. Narrow road, winding, beautiful. The first half is easy, a gentle climb along a wandering river. Then you cross a cattle guard and it gets serious. By the way, I HATE riding across cattle guards. I always feel like I'm going to shake my teeth right out of my head. Ugh. But there suddenly are hairpin turns with brief 15% grades. There's a spot called Cadillac Curve where - you guessed it - a Cadillac once shot right off the cliff. Fortunately, the drop-off (no guard rails or other protection) is on the climbing side, not the side where riders are descending at crazy speeds. Then a series of short, brutal ramps. Then a lovely lake.



 Then, at last, summit # 3, sticker #3. I walked the last two little ramps. My leg was once again threatening to cramp up.

I didn't want to think about what that might mean, so I stopped just long enough to get the sticker, and headed down the other side.

It's only 5 miles. Hurray! When I got there, I got sticker #4 (same reasoning as sticker #2 - there is really no place to go but back up). I ate some more. Should have been a lot more. Stretch, turn around, climb back up. But I was getting pretty tired by now, and towards the top there is a sustained climb that persuaded me to get off and walk a bit. Still, I got back on eventually, and rode up & over the summit, while experiencing a more outspoken cramp in that leg.

Another fun descent. There were still a few riders climbing the first side of Ebbetts. They were looking pretty stressed. I felt very, very glad to have gotten as far as I had.

At the intersection for the third and last time, I found my husband. The roads from there on were open, and he planned to ride with me (let me draft off him if there happened to be any headwinds), and to give me some fresh food he'd brought to town in the cooler. That was soooo nice!

Then we got back on the bikes and headed to the last two rest stops, which had rapidly approaching cut-off times. We got to the first one with no problem. Oh, I was good and tired, and was riding very, very slowly, but at a slow pace I was ok. Then only 6 miles to the final cut-off before the final pass. That 6 mile stretch does include some climbing. Not all that much, but by this time, I was dreading it.

We had time. We walked some of it. Actually, my husband pushed both bikes for a while & I followed. That's when I began to wonder just how much farther I could go.

We made the cut-off by about 20 minutes. I sat and ate watermelon. I figured that it was basically sugar water and would have a decent chance of getting in and restarting my system if it was possible. But when I stood up, I got dizzy. We headed out anyway. Only eight miles to the final summit. Once you pass that cut-off, you can take hours to cover those miles if you want. So I chose to ride the next flat mile and stop and see if I could recruit a little more strength. There's another lovely little stream. The mosquitos weren't yet out in force - or maybe I smelled too bad for them by then? It was peaceful.

I wanted to continue. Oh, sure, I wanted to lie down and sleep, to be through. But more than that, I wanted to figure out a way to cover those last miles to the summit. I couldn't do it.

The longer I thought, the more I had to acknowledge that there was nothing left. I tested myself over and over. I knew that turning around was a decision I would second-guess forever if I hadn't given it all the thought I could. But in the end I was convinced that there was no way to continue safely. My strength was gone; my judgment was muddied; I'd had one experience of bonking, from which I had learned that even walking was probably about to get close to impossible. Eight miles short of the final summit, I turned around.

Before you feel too sad about that, let me list what I DID do that day.



I finished four summits; I made all the cut-off times fairly easily; I climbed over 12,500', 1500' more than I'd ever done before in one day. So actually, I am pretty excited that it was possible to get that far. After what I felt on my first couple of climbs at altitude, I was not at all sure that even 3 summits would be possible. And I am a grandmother who thought climbing the tiniest hill was too much work less than 10 years ago.

But don't think I am satisfied, either. I really wish that I had given out just an hour farther along...

So where do I go from here? I want to let that question settle in my mind for a while, but I have to admit, I will not be surprised to find myself rushing to register when the ride opens up for 2014. It really is a beautiful course.

Thanks SO MUCH Death Ride Grandma! --Crabby



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