Sleepless in Seattle
Well, I committed. 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.
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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 9 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. Now the tricky thing is, when hills come 30 miles into a 750-mile ride, 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 miles".
Along this next section we were caught by Tim Sulllivan 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 along into the second control. Our first feed stop came at the alternate 150km 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, 2 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.
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 mt bike tire during a road event (85). Mike was back up the road having some quiet time. He eventually caught up to us in quaint Morton, before turning 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 225km 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 we passed through a lush green forest blanketed in moss with beautiful viewpoints overlooking Mt. Ranier, and/or Adams (it/they were kind of in the clouds). 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 298km 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 arm rest drink holder 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 had opened up a bicycle repair shop and was tending to riders machines. Those guys were fantastic.
We left Northwoods in the twilight sporting our reflective gear. The sky was providing a beautiful 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 was made onto Windy River Rd, the road turns into the sky and punishes riders for the next 4 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 decent but it stayed out of our path and we had an uneventful coast down the descent and 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 hrs on the bike, and now can't sleep again. "Maybe I'm not cut out for this stuff", I thought.
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, 540km—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 then 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 4 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 tumble weeds 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 a 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 so far away 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 did, finally realize that I had been climbing for miles. The peak of this section was not far away and once I crested over the top it was the fastest descent of my life. I was feeling quite proud of my near 50MPH when a rocket shot by—a tandem. The tandem topped out at 57MPH. 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 then realize that we were being blown uphill at 20 miles-per-hour 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 8mm 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 (703km), 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. This sleep control was set up in the Quincy high school. I showered, ate delicious homemade chili with rice, and then proceeded to the gym floor. Hallelujah—sleep came!
I fell into a cavernous sleep-state and slumbered for a luxurious 4-½ hrs. When I woke, 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 am — I was nearly riding sweep for this event.
The first part of the third day was flat and through farmland; however, this flat was spoiled by the chip-and-seal 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 quiet road through the Coulee. The Coulee has a prehistoric feel to it. I felt as if I was devolving. The sides are shear rock walls, and I felt as if we were riding along an ancient river bed. We crossed 4 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 781km 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 decent into the Columbia River gorge once more. On the rain-slicked road of this most severe decent, 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 Crichman. 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 3 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, not someone else's, pace.
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 watter 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 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 5 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 889km 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 a ½-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 the I started to feel good. No, not good, but 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 Hwy 181 back in NC 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 and rainy descent off the back-side and into the Methow valley. The decent 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 (974km) 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.
Anyway, I made my way through the deer and into the control around 1am. 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.
As we continued our drop out of the North Cascades we were treated to some more breath-taking scenery. The wind began to pick up and we hammered into the Marblemount 1093km control. This last bit of fast riding finished me off. Two days of no sleep followed by last night's less than 2 hrs, 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 awoken one minute later by a conversation Mike was having with the owner of my grassy bed. She asked a few brief questions about my condition and then casually retrieved her mail and headed back into her house. When I fell asleep for the third time inside of 5 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 Tarheel Burgers on the menu and although hailing from the Tarheel 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 directly in front of the toilet, 6 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 DNF-ed on day one 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. 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 the Granite Falls McDonald's (1200km). 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 into the finish. 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 ten minutes I was in ZZZZZ-ville, up in my room. Our 6 am 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 hard work and 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 PBP2003 handbook. 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 everyday ordinary Joe. The people riding
these events are different, and that is what I like—different.
Special personal thanks goes to Mike Dayton who stayed with me many
times, but particularly on the last day, despite my physical and
emotional meltdown. Mike could have finished several hours earlier, but
decided to nurse me in with mental coaching and a steady, unending,
supply of gel-packs.
- Charles Breer's photos
- Ready for a vacation without R&R — Columbia Daily Tribune
- Ride Reports — Bicycling Forum
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