July 26, 2013

Seattle to Portland in one day

What a ride.

We had been training for months, and the day was finally here. All the miles were in, and we just needed to do our best to keep it together for 210 more. When training for a marathon, it is in some ways much harder to push through a long training run than to run the full distance on race day. Those Saturday 20 milers on your own can be a lonely slog compared to the energy of the crowd taking on the challenge together.

Preparing for the dual biking challenges has been quite different. Sure there were mid-week rides where it was just me and the pavement, but the long rides on the weekend were with a rotating set of companions. You still have to peddle every stroke and climb every hill yourself, but you are not by yourself. Shared trials and adventures make the road a little easier.

As the car drives, it is about 150 miles from Seattle to Portland, but sticking to quieter roads and side highways, the STP bike route is 204 miles. As if that wasn’t far enough, three of us decided to ride to the start. It was only an additional six miles, and mostly downhill, but still, it didn’t seem like the wisest strategy.

My upstairs neighbor woke me up at 2:00am, a half hour before I planned to get up, so I had extra time to get ready and ponder why I do these things. We met at Joe’s house and pinned our numbers to our jerseys and bikes. I was rather surprised to see Tom walk in the door a bit later. He had tweaked his back a week or two earlier, and I didn’t think he was going to be able to ride. His posture still looked a bit out of whack, but he was determined to go as far as he could. Half the battle on these things comes down to sheer will, and he would have to lean on that pretty hard before the day was over.

We set out from Joe’s, cold, and a mixture of sleepy and amped. As promised, the route was pretty easy, and it was nice to avoid the line of cars queuing up for a place to park. We met up with our fourth rider Matt in the mass of humanity and walked our bikes to the start. So many miles, and so many crazy people who get up early to do this for fun. All those early Saturday mornings and hilly afternoons to get ready, and it was finally time. Here we go.

I have ridden the STP in two days several times, and made one ill-fated, solo, one-day attempt in 2009. Joe and Tom had done the two-day ride last year, but the route was all new for Matt. He had done several 100 mile rides in preparation, but without the point of reference of the actual course, he was understandably nervous in the days leading up to this. Of course none of us knew what the last 50 miles would feel like, but we tried to ease our anxiety by discussing lots of “what ifs” in the days leading up to the event.

I swore I would never ride the STP again in two days. There are simply too many riders. The event has grown to over 10,000 bicyclists trying to share the roads to Portland. The STP is a bucket list item for many, and it attracts riders of widely varying ability. To be able to bike safely and comfortably in crowds, you need to feel confident in what the riders around you are going to do. With the roads over-crowded with veteran and newbie bikers alike, it no longer felt safe to me.

Of the 10,000 riders, roughly 2,000 attempt to ride it in one day. The experience and skill level was likely to be higher, plus we set out earlier than most, so that meant fewer riders sharing the road. Even so, we passed a fire truck with a rider on a back board at mile two, and an ambulance tending to another rider at mile six. Very sobering. We needed to be careful.

The morning passed quickly, and we saw the sun rise over Lake Washington as we rode along the boulevard. Then it was on through Renton, Kent, Auburn, Sumner and to the “Hill” in Puyallup. The mile-long hill is the only major climb in the first hundred miles, and they call it a “rite of passage you must conquer.” It is definitely challenging, but it was much easier this year with all of our hill training.

I waited at the top for Tom to make the climb. He was going to have the toughest time on the ride, and I wanted to have him draft off of me as much as possible. Depending on how fast you are going, and how closely you stick to the rider in front, you can save as much as 30% of your effort by riding in the wind shadow. Whenever possible, I tried to keep Tom in my hip pocket. He joked that he would have the image of my race bib burned into his retinas like a ghost image of staring at a TV too long.

Just before Yelm, Tom called out to pull over. He had broken his chain. Joe and Matt were on ahead, so Tom called to let them know to stop as I unpacked my tools. The pin had stayed in the link, so it made the repair much easier than typical, and we were back on the road within ten minutes. We tried to keep our stops as brief as possible in hopes of banking time for later in the day when we would slow down, but we decided it was worth the time to have a mechanic look at his repaired chain forty miles later at the half-way point of Centralia.

It turned out he was missing the roller for the link that broke, and it was making shifting a bit difficult. The mechanic ended up pulling a link out and also tightening a spoke while he had the bike up on his stand. We ended up being in Centralia for almost an hour, but it was worth it for the peace of mind.

The second half of the ride is hillier, and of course you already have a hundred miles on your legs. We were slowing, but it still looked like we could make it in by 8:00 if we kept a reasonable pace. We skipped a rest stop or two to make up time, but we paused at the top of the Napavine hill to get some homemade banana bread. The same family has been coming out for 20 years to raise money, and the cinnamony goodness tastes that much better when your body is depleted.

We climbed and rolled our way through Winlock, Vader and Castlerock, and the hills took their toll on our pace. Rather than tear up the hills and wait at the top, I pedaled a bit easier to keep Tom in sight. We stopped for food at Lexington and lingered a bit longer in the shade. We had sixty miles to go, and were about to cross into the furthest any of us had ridden. We were also about to cross into Oregon by way of Longview.

On the two day ride, they shut down the Longview Bridge every 15 minutes to allow the bikers to ride over en masse. The one day riders are on their own and must share the bridge lane like any other roadway. It was another nervous unknown leading into the ride, but we made the climb up and over the Columbia and the rapid decent down the other side without incident.

The final fifty miles through Oregon are primarily on Highway 30. There are a few hills in the beginning and end, but it is largely just a long, gradual climb into Portland. I stuck behind with Tom trying to help him make it to the finish, but his energy was flagging and he was getting slower with each mile. He pulled off at a gas station around mile 165, and we went inside and each grabbed a soda. I had told him on a previous 90 degree STP day that the combination of sugar and carbonation had revitalized me, and he wanted to try anything at that point.

We sat outside on the bench and chatted, and soon he pronounced that he was done. His eyes were swimmy with fatigue, and he said he was having difficulty holding onto the handlebars. He had come this far, but didn’t think he could climb another hill. His wife was waiting in Portland, and he would call for a ride. Rather than wait at the gas station, he wanted to ride the five miles to the next rest stop and call it a day there.

We met up with Joe and Matt and shared the bad news. Tom had ridden pretty well on the five miles to the stop, but he was still convinced he was done, and I thought it was the right call. The three remaining riders headed out to ride the last thirty miles together, our new goal to make the finish line before 9:00 when the said they would start taking it down. We had to fly to make it, but latched on to a train of riders and were soon cooking along at 20 miles an hour.

After a few miles, I felt like I had enough to go faster, and we pulled out and passed them. We had our own three-person train going, and our steady speed climbed to 21, 22 and 23mph. It was unexpected, and I have to say it felt great. It was pretty amazing to have this much left in my tank after riding 170 miles, and it felt like we were one well oiled machine. There are a couple of hills before crossing over into Portland, and after flying down one, I was sustaining 29 miles per hour climbing up the next hill. I think taking the hills at an easier pace earlier in the day allowed me to finish strong.

We climbed over the Saint Johns Bridge with ten miles to go, and 9:00 was still a possibility. A wrong turn led to a short delay, and traffic signals near the finish had us looking at the ticking clock. There is a string of stop lights in the last half mile, and we seemed to miss each one. We had three minutes, then two, but we finally rode beneath the banner right at 9:00. It is always a bit anti-climactic with the stop-and-go over the last half mile, but it was still very satisfying to cross the finish line.

After receiving a cheer and our “One-Day” patch, we found our support crew in the crowd. We saw Tom’s wife, but were confused that Tom was not with her. It turns out, he had climbed back on his bike and he was now riding his way to the finish. We were pretty amazed because I didn’t think he had it in him to walk to the parking lot for a ride, much less get back on his bike.

The story would find out later was that after calling his wife, he stretched out on his back in the grass at the rest stop. He closed his eyes and was probably working through his day and how it had ended too early. Eyes still closed, he heard a woman say to her husband/boyfriend, “C’mon honey, we can do it. We are so close. It is only 30 more miles. We can make it.” Lying there with his eyes closed, Tom imagined she was talking to him, and he thought, “You’re right, I can do this.” And he did.

Tom rolled in about 40 minutes later. We felt a bit guilty for leaving him behind, and I asked him later if we should have pushed him, encouraged him on. I was convinced he was beyond that point, and he agreed. I guessed, and he confirmed, that it ended up being easier for him to ride alone that last stretch, riding at his own pace and not worrying about slowing down the group. We didn’t quite finish as a team, but we all finished. The months of weekend rides together had made that team, and we supported each other as much as we could, but sometimes you have to make it through on your own grit and determination.

Speaking of our team, Joe, Tom and I signed up for Ramrod in their team category, wanting either all or none of us to get in this year. When we signed up, Joe put down as our team name “Sierra” who had passed away a week before. It was a really nice gesture, but then he had jerseys made as well, so we rode together looking like even more of a team.

With her name on my chest, I decided to bring a bit more of her with me to remember my dear friend. I put a photo of her on my top tube bag, and slipped a small container of her ashes into my jersey pocket and carried her all the way to the finish. While we waited for Tom to roll in, I drifted off and placed her ashes under a tree near the finish.

I previously had no idea what to do with her ashes. Though I took her with me to many places, we didn’t really have a special spot that was “ours” beyond the backyard at the old house where we would unwind together. The night before the ride I decided that the finish line was meaningful to me, our team name, and to friendship in general. It just felt right.

I am proud of how we did, both individually and as a team. It is no small thing to ride over 200 miles and no small blessing to have good friends to ride alongside. It made the finish line that much sweeter. Thanks team.

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