Sunday night I finished the Cascade Cream Puff at 8:10 PM Pacific Daylight Time after over 14 and a half hours of struggling with gravity and rolling resistance and humidity. Then I got up Monday morning and drove 8 hours to Boise, ID. Then got up Tuesday morning and drove 12.5 hours to Salida. Now I'm tired.
The Cream Puff really is memorable. It's huge and beautiful. The organization and aid station volunteers are 1st rate. So much pretty singletrack, a course with absolutely no flat ground, huge trees, ferns and moss...
Saturday before the race was hot. Scary hot. I was making sure I had piles of electrolyte capsules and salt crystals to bring along. I was thinking about how full I should keep my hydration pack. I was coaching myself to drink regularly and keep up on my electrolytes. Then around dinnertime the thunder started to rumble. At just around bedtime it started to rain. I had gotten myself prone after much fidgeting around with gear, loading of a drop bag, and attending the race meeting at 4 PM. I relaxed and listened to the rain as I tried to fall to sleep. It was a relief, cutting the heat and creating hope for a cooler day for the race.
My alarm woke me up at about 3:45. I did not need a jacket or anything covering my legs in the pre-dawn darkness. It was probably 65° F and very moist. I saw evidence that there had been about a third of an inch of moisture over night. I got myself dressed up and rolled from the RV Park where I stayed with June and Phil at around 4:45 for the 5 AM sign-in. Start was scheduled for 5:15.
The start did not actually happen until a few moments before 5:30. There was almost fog. The air was far thicker than anything I've been used to for many years. The day promised to be humid, but it seemed that the heat of Saturday would be cut back by the moisture.
I've been stressed about this race, really wanting to finish it. My girlfriend Kathy gave me a really good perspective though--that I should just have the experience. What does it really matter? Since I've been doing these endurance events, I've been really goal-oriented. And that's good. But it's not good to beat myself up after putting in good efforts. And it's not good to allow that stuff to spoil a life experience like going to the Oregon Cascades to ride and see the unique Northwest timber country. No matter what happens, it's good. It's success.
So I started out the day with a smile. What happens happens. Be here. Enjoy the experience. Let it happen.
At the start we rolled in big ring up a paved road for three miles, then turned left onto road 1910, a logging road that headed up from around 1000 ft elevation to Windy Pass at around 3,700 feet. Nice 2,700 foot climb in 11 miles for a warmup. We climbed through clouds. The air was rich and foggy, and the scent of pines and wildflowers floated through the air. Near the top of the climb we finally climbed out into patchy sunlight.
I got to Aid Station #2 at Windy Pass at around 7 AM. I needed nothing from them since I'd started out with a full bag of water and a bottle of HEED. I proceeded to begin the 1st turn around the upper loop, starting on the Alpine Trail, then riding the Tire Mountain Trail and the Winberry Divide, finishing with the Winberry Tie Trail. This chunk of the course I had ridden almost completely on Thursday (the day we got lost) so I knew that it was a fair bit of work and a couple hours at least.
Near the start of the Alpine Trail there is an opening in the tree cover, and a view down to the upper Willamette Valley:
The valley floor was obscured by a layer of cloud. It was really breathtaking. The air was thick and moist and felt really good in my lungs. The trail was tacky and my tires rolled almost silently.
Tire Mountain is so classic. It has big huge trees, sweeping traverses with tight switchbacks, bridges, and lots of moss and ferns. There was a climb near the beginning, then it was mostly downhill for several miles.
The Winberry Divide is a ridgeline trail. It climbs and descends, and is really fairly intense. Switchbacks tend to be tight, sightlines are short, and the climbs take lots of work. On my first trip I climbed most of those in the saddle. Then it turns into the Winberry Tie Trail after an intersection with the Eugene to Crest Trail. The Winberry Tie is beautiful. The last little bit looks like something out of Jurassic Park--a winding ribbon of singletrack through a bed of moss with ferns, leafy bushes, and vines all around.
There was quite a bit of traffic when I passed through the first singletrack section. For the most part the other racers were cheerful and easy to ride with, but it was a bit disruptive. Lots of passing. It's quite difficult to follow a rider on that Cascade singletrack. In order to stay safe you really need to have a good sight line. There is not enough time to react with a rider blocking your forward view of the trail.
Then it was in to Aid Station #3 and the beginning of the brief paved road section along Winberry Creek. The road was one lane and had moss growing in the middle where car tires weren't rolling. It climbed almost imperceptibly. The creek was incredibly pretty, full of pools and little rapid areas. Idyllic. That piece of the return to Windy Pass was sweet place to regroup and unwind after the strenuous and engaging Winberry Divide section.
The climbing began. Over 2,000 feet needed to be gained in about 12 miles. Not too much vertical, but enough. And there's a certain amount of roll in that bit of road, so you give back a little elevation that has to be climbed again before reaching Windy Pass.
I left Aid #3 at around 9:30 AM after filling my water bottle with HEED and rice protein powder. There were lots of people around me, and it seemed that most were climbing faster than I was. But that's typical.
I reached Windy Pass at about 11:30, got my hydration pack refilled, grabbed a couple full Hammer Gel flasks and my can of Red Bull from my drop bag, and rolled as quickly as possible. It was time to tackle Alpine-Tire Mountain-Winberry again.
I felt pretty good on the singletrack the 2nd time. The temperature was still really moderate, but it was quite humid. Thankfully most of that trip was done under a high canopy so there wasn't much exposure to sun. The dappled shade was beautiful.
I had to pass a few slower singletrack riders near the start, but then was in much less traffic than the last pass. There were about half a dozen riders I played leapfrog with, but it was not at all disruptive. For the most part I was able to just roll at my pace. It took almost exactly as long for me to arrive at Aid Station #3 from Windy Pass as it had on the first pass, which was really encouraging. I had expected to struggle on that second pass with heat and fatigue, but it wasn't uncomfortably hot at all and I had good energy.
At Aid #3 I refilled my food bottle again, and the half dozen or so riders I had been with on Winberry were either already there or arrived while I was stopped. I swallowed electrolytes and a little pile of sea salt crystals and made my way back to the road climb.
This time, I was alone. One rider rolled up behind me on the paved section and sat behind me. Neither of us said anything, and he seemed to be drafting on me. When we hit the gravel and the steeper grade he passed me and we exchanged a few words.
I felt like I was really laboring to make a pace on the climb, but was really surprised that nobody overtook me. I was starting to look at my watch. It was about 1:45 when I left Aid #3 and I knew it would take at least two hours to get back to Aid #2 at Windy Pass. That would put me there at 3:45-4:00 PM. Then I would need to descend Alpine Trail all the way to Aid #1 at the start/finish. When I pre-rode that it took me over 90 minutes, but I was stopping lots to gawk and take pictures so I wasn't sure of how quickly I could do it. I needed to plan for over an hour for that descent if I was going to be safe. And I needed to stop at an Aid to refill my hydration pack at least once more, which would take time. So, what? 5:00 PM at Aid #1 then the climb back to Windy Pass? That took 90 minutes first thing in the morning. And that was with the road section to the start of 1910. This time I needed to ride the North Fork Trail (singletrack) to the start of 1910. Cut-off at the last visit to Aid #2 on Windy Pass was 7 PM. Shit. I realized I was marginal to finish. No extra time, no tolerance of a slowed pace.
I connected with the sentiment that Kathy planted in my head. Not finishing will not be failing. I struggled with that a little, then came to a balance. I decided I was going to try. I was going to keep it rolling and not stress about it--or at least stress as little as possible. I really wanted to finish, and I could see that it was possible. But if I flatted or if I blew up, so be it. I knew that anything that cost me more than 15 or 20 minutes would break it. But I could try.
So I rolled.
The heat now was coming on. There were sections of the climb back to Windy Pass that were in broad sunshine. When there was no shade the heat and humidity were uncomfortable. But I accepted that, and I kept in my head the realization that it could have been much warmer, and the heat could have come on much earlier. I took more salt and more electrolyte, and I ate a couple of dates that I had with me.
I decided to stop at Aid #4 to get my hydration bag refilled. It was much smaller and less busy than any of the other Aid Stations. And I'd been hitting the bag pretty hard, so I knew that I might actually run out before reaching Aid #2. I would fill the bag at Aid #4 and then roll through Aid #2.
Still nobody passed me. It seemed to take forever to get to Aid #4. Wasn't it just past this road intersection? Must be just around the next bend in the road. No? Am I really dragging, or was it just farther along than I remembered? I worked to keep the stress at bay, then I saw a box trailer with plastic water jugs in it. Aid #4.
I had them pretty much top off the hydration bag, then poured my Red Bull into the bottle of food on my bike. It was time for a kick in the junk to get me back into a good frame of mind and give me the will to turn those cranks for another 7 miles to Windy Pass and the top of the Alpine Trail. I was ready to be done with this 2nd pass on the upper loop.
The last 7 miles of that stretch of the course has some descent downhills and flat sections. I tried to carry as much momentum as possible, and stood to climb in taller gears rather than sitting to grind out small gears to get there. I reached Aid #2 and the end of the 2nd upper loop at about 5 minutes to 4:00 PM. Getting down to Aid #1 with enough time to get back up to Windy Pass by 7 was going to be just as challenging as I'd thought. But be safe, damnit. "I for sure won't make it if I crash," I thought to myself.
The outstanding Aid #2 people asked me what I needed as I approached, and I told them I was a little worried about time, so I was just going to roll. Eric, the Aid #2 supervisor trotted along next to me kind of interviewing me. I knew that he was evaluating me to be sure I was OK to proceed. He did not want some bonked out rider trying to get down Alpine without stopping to get some rest, hydration and calories. I explained that I was OK, but that I needed to roll. He let me go, and I got down to business.
There are a few fairly steep climbs at the top of Alpine, then the escalater heads down.
Holeee Smokin' Brake Pads Batman! That Alpine Trail is some kind of descent when you aren't stopping to take pictures. I had already had to stop twice to take up slack in my Avid BB7 calipers. The descents on the first loop had eaten some brake pad, but this thing--wow. Letting go of the brakes out of a switchback made me pick up speed like a rollercoaster. Then hauling it back down to get around the next one, then picking up speed again. Then long straight steeps where I had to ride the brakes all the way--focusing on the front letting that big front rotor do what it's good at. I wondered if those rotors were getting orange.
I made it down to Aid #1 in almost exactly one hour. It was about 4:50 PM. I talked to Scott, the Cream Puff honcho and he told me I was fine to make the cut-off if I felt OK. So I spent a few minutes there. I chugged the rest of my Red Bull-HEED concoction then re-filled my food bottle and got on my way.
The North Fork Trail that I took to the bottom of road 1910 seemed to take forever. It was really pretty, and I should have enjoyed it, but I just wanted to see the bottom of that climb so I could get down to the business of climbing the last road section and making the cut-off. The trail was fairly overgrown, and I had been warned that this was the biggest poison oak exposure of the whole course. I tried not to brush the overhanging vegetation, but it was pointless. I tried not to touch my legs so that I wouldn't get any of the oil on my gloves, where it would then wind up on my face, etc. But of course there were skeeters to slap and itches to scratch. So be it.
Eventually I reached 1910. I was blessed by some overcast sky, and the heat of the day seemed to have subsided, but I was feeling the effects of 12 hours of riding and humidity. My jersey felt like it must have a pound of salt disolved in the fabric. It was nearly 5:30. I ate electrolytes, a little pile of salt crystals, and my last medjool date. I took a hit of Hammer Gel from my last full flask. I swallowed several mouthfuls of water. And I got down to it.
The first 5 miles of this 8-mile climb are steepish. I had been about half middle ring and half granny on the first trip up, 12 hours ago. But now I was pretty much granny. Every once in a while I would go up to middle ring and stand. But that was making my left foot hurt. So I just held on. At about mile 2.5 I came into a forest management area where most of the trees had been cleared. The overcast sky broke up enough to put some sun on my shoulders. It was taking a toll. I kept at it, but eventually had to stop for a minute just to stand and breath.
At about mile 5 the climb flattens a little, but I was not really able to take advantage. I just didn't have it. My HEED-Rice Protein was starting to make me nauseous. My Hammer Gel was pretty much gone. I started feeling bonky. I stopped again, this time just dumping out the food bottle contents. I didn't even want it close to me. Yuk. One of the guys who I had last seen at Aid #4 caught me and passed me. I took out a Hammer bar but could only eat half of it. It tasted like sawdust. I started yearning for something sweet up at Aid #2. I was yearning for Aid #2 in general.
A canadian girl appeared up the road cheering. I asked her how much farther to Aid #2, assuming it was right around the corner. "A-boot a mile, a little more" she said, as if that was good news. I looked at my watch. Quarter to seven. Could I make a mile plus in 15 minutes? I was so close--not making the cut-off now seemed tragic. I was starting to feel that emotional semi-weepy mental state that comes with deep fatigue and bonk. I struggled to keep it back. I thought about happy things, but it was hard.
I saw a group of people up ahead cheering. Could they be closer to Aid #2? One of them had a baby stroller. How far would she have pushed a baby stroller down a gravel road? They said encouraging things as I struggled past them, and I felt emotion choking me. Then I rounded a bend in the road and saw one of the easy-ups for Aid #2. "Thank God" I wispered. Thank God. It was 6:55.
I sat down in a folding chair, and Eric the Aid Station Angel sat in front of me looking into my eyes. He was asking me what I needed, but I knew he was also evaluating me. I told him I was really tired, but thought I was OK. I needed something sweet to drink. He brought me a bottle of gatoraide and I drank half of it in one pull. He brought me orange sections and another volunteer brought me a chunk of watermelon. He put a cold, wet washcloth on my neck and brought me a gold-colored juice concoction--apple and guava and something else. It was the nectar of the gods. I drank a cup of it, and Eric put more in my water bottle.
In ten minutes of sitting and drinking and eating, I felt 100% better. My emotional state was under control, and I just started feeling happy that I had made it. All I needed to do was make it down safely. A little more climbing, but only minutes worth.
I thanked those wonderful people at Aid #2 and headed for the finish. Just before I started down the Alpine for the 2nd time, I stopped to dial in my brakes. I took up a surprising amount of slack--again.
I rolled carefully but without wasting any time. If I needed to fix a flat or stop for any other reason, I needed a little slack. But again, crashing was not in my plan.
The light was getting dim, and in some places the cover was so deep that it was pretty dark even at mid-day. There was a deep haze visible when looking down into the Willamette Valley, and the slanting sunlight looked a little red. Smoke from the fires in California?
I rolled carefully but with purpose, and never had to stop. I got to the finish at around 8:10. Scott handed me a finishers cap and shook my hand. I looked around at the gathering of riders and families and friends.
Done. Finished. Complete.