Saturday, May 22, 2010

Mt Whitney Stage Race, May 2010

I haven't posted for some time.  More about that later.  For the present, let me try to describe the wonderful Mt. Whitney Stage Race.  I heard about it from Jim Morehouse, the terrific climber from Las Vegas, who, like me, races for Paramount.  I saw him at the Paramount Masters Crit and he asked me if I was planning to do the Mt. Whitney Stage Race.  I said I didn't yet know anything about it, but later checked out the website, and found out it was scheduleld for May 15-16 and put on by Steve Barnes, who is the one who also puts on the Everest Challenge.

I have some personal history with the Everest Challenge.  In about 2000, I met Tom Reid on some of the California Triple Crown double centuries.  At the time we climbed at about the same pace (he's now a much stronger climber than I ... he's much younger than I am), and I found myself climbing with him on one occasion.  As we climbed together, I found out he lived in Bishop was also a skier, and enjoyed backcountry skiing, as do I.  Later, perhaps the next year, I saw him at the end of the Eastern Sierra Double Century where he had left out some fliers on a table with the title "Mt Everest Challenge".  The fliers described a ride he had dreamed about:  a series of climbs in the eastern Sierras that had elevation gain that totalled the height of Mt Everest.  His idea at the time was to do the entire collection in a day, and he had set a particular date for it.  By coincidence the distance travelled was also about 200 miles, an appropriate distance for a double century.  I picked up a flier, but didn't seriously consider doing the ride.  climbing had always been my weakness.  The maximum amount of climbing I had done in a day was the Devil Mountain Double out of San Ramon, which totalled about 18,000', and that had been more than enough for me.

The next time I saw Tom, it was more than a year after the date he had set for the original Everest Challenge, and I asked him what happened on that first day.  He told me that no one had signed up and no on showed up, but he decided to try it anyway.  He started from Bishop at 3 am and rode to the top of Rock Creek, the first climb in the series.  It was still in the 30's when he descended, and he was so cold that he called his wife to pick him up, so the very first Everest Challenge ended in a DNF.  After that he had the idea of doing the climbs as a 2 day event, making things much more manageable. I'm guessing that it was the second year before it became a USAC stage race. 

In two consecutive years, I did the race on tandem with Anny Beck, a terrific climber and, at 100 pounds dripping wet, a blessing for a tandem captain.  Both years it was ungodly hot, especially at the bottom of the third climb each day.  The last climb of each day was so long I thought it would never end.  Also, I got badly dehydrated and had to stop and beg water from passing cars.  But we finished , albeit dead last on both occasions.  I think Tom kept the course open as a favor, so that we could finish.  The good news is that Tom gave each of us a championship EC jersey, as first place in the tandem category.  The second year there was another tandem that attempted the climb, a male-male pair, but they DNF'd.  In later years, Anny did the race twice on her single, but I haven't attempted it solo, at least not yet.

In any case, when I saw the plan for the Mt Whitney stage race, I was intrigued, because both stages are wonderful climbs.  The eastern Sierras has what have to be some of the best climbs in the world.  With the clear desert air, and the lack of forests on the terrain, the vistas are unparalleled.  Also, Steve had established a Masters 65+ age category, and I had just turned 65.  Yes, I'm a card-carrying geezer now.  Just ask and I'll show you my Medicare card!

Originally the ride was planned to begin in Furnace Creek and climb Townes Pass, similar to the old Death Valley to Whitney Road Rrace, which I never attempted.  I've climbed Townes from the west a number of time as part of the Furnace Creek 508, so the pull of doing the pass from the east also attracted me.  But due to some new Park Service rules for Death Valley events (dedicated EMTs and ambulance available the entire time!), Steve changed the stage to Horseshoe Meadows, the huge set of switchbacks carved out of the eastern face of the southern Sierras that stares at you as travel south out of Lone Pine.

Saturday's stage climbed Whitney Portal, and a 10:00 am start allowed everyone a leisurely morning.  There were about 90 racers in all categories. As I looked over the group of cyclists preparing for the race, I thought to myself: "Golly, these are some seriously thin dudes.  I'm really out of my league!" I hardly saw anyone with any bulk at all.

The 55s, 60s and 65s, numbering 10 in total, raced together, but were scored separately.  The pace began pretty easily, but when we arrived at the first climb up Tuttle Creek Road, I was struggled to stay in touch at the back of our group.  Finally I resigned to climb at my own pace and began to drop back.  But as I did so, I realized we were almost at an intermediate top, and I pushed to see if I could keep in contact.  By sheer luck, it was an intermediate summit, and I managed to hang on to the group as they descended.  We the turned down Lubkin Canyon Road and toboganned down the single lane road.  At the bottom, we did a U-turn and began climbing the same canyon road.  On the descent I had decided that I would climb at my own speed when this climb began.  And it wasn't very long before all in our group had passed me.  It was about 11:00 am by the time we began this climb, and it was noticably hot. I figured it wouldn't be too long before we would gain enough elevation to begin feeling some cooling effect. Also, there was a strong cooling tailwind as we climbed toward Whitney Portal.

The climb approaching the first switchback, and then the lower portion of the first switchback is the steepest, over 16% best as I could tell.  With my compact crank and 11-28 cassette, I was barely able to keep my wheels turning.  I certainly wouldn't have wanted any less in the way of low gears.  The road stayed very steep for the first half of the climb, then tipped down to a more manageable level, say 10% or so.  The gradient stayed about that steep until we approached the portal area itself, where is was only 5% or so.  When I finally crossed the finish line, I had been riding about 2:28.  I was the last finisher of our group of 55 and older racers.

Steve Barnes, the race director, arranged a fine picnic that afternoon and evening at a ranch at the base of Horseshoe Meadows Road.  The ranch had a breathtaking view of the the valley floor, about 2000' feet below.  I visited with several people and commiserated over the sorry state of the driving public's consideration for cyclists.  There was also some agreement that the increased number of bicycling commuters should eventually help turn the tide of public opinion.

Sunday's beginning was much more relaxed than that of Saturday, there being no registration needed.  The pace at the beginiing was somewhat faster, and a couple of cyclists in our group fell off the back.  A bit later, and before the first top, I also fell off the back.  By the time I neared to top, the other two had caught up with me, and we figured we could help each other on the flat before the big climb.  At first I thought I'd only be able to stay at the back of the three of us, but as I recovered from the climb I found I was able to take as long a pull as the others.  We then had a U-turn and retraced our steps approaching the climb.  When we first started up, I stayed at the back awhile, but after recovering I was able to continue taking regular pulls.  There was a pretty stiff quartering headwind and even though we were climbing, we echeloned across the road, making good progress up the approach to the beginning of the real climb.

When you drive south from Lone Pine, you see a series of 4 or 5 huge cuts into the eastern side of the Sierras, going up toward the top as far as you can see.  These switchbacks are part of the climb up to Horseshoe Meadows that we were then approaching.   The first switchback begins after the Horseshoe Meadows ranch where we had the picknic on Saturday afternoon.  I continued climbing with my 2 partners.  They were Bob Dahlgren, who eventually finished first in 65+ and Mike Crystal, racing 55+.  The climb was very exposed to the southerly headwind, and working together really helped, making the miles go by much more easily.  Someplace towards the top of the first switchback we caught up with Bob Llamas, the other 65+ racer.  He had been riding by himself in the wind for a long time, and was pretty beat.  After we caught him, he jumped on the back of our group, but before long I saw he wasn't able to stay with us, and dropped off the back.  We continued together until about the middle of the 4th switchback, when Mike slowed a bit, and I filled the gap.  After awhile Mike had to drop off the back, and a bit later still I had to let Bob go ahead.  Each of us was now climbing at his own pace. 

Eventually I arrived at Walt's point, where a plaque to an early flier of hang gliders is mounted in a bolder.  This is where hang gliding enthusiats jump off to glide to the valley floor, 6000 feet below.  There was one longish climb after that, then a descent of about 300-400 feet, followed by the final climb to the top.  Before the summit preceeding the descent, a volunteer offered me a bottle.  I figured I was close enough to the finish that I could do without the water, and I declined it.  What a poor judgement on my part!.  

Shortly after this intermediate top, I drank the last of my water, and cramps began to threaten.  After the descent, as I began the final climb to the finish, I had to unclip and shake out my leg while pedalling with my other leg.  I had to let the one leg dangle, as I shook it out to try to calm the cramping.  Will I nver learn? Around the 1 mile to go mark, I looked at the right side of the road and saw a water bottle on the ground.  I stopped and picked it up and found it was half full of water.  I drank it right away, then resumed the climb to the finish.  I had to go easy until the finish because when I tried to push, the cramps would return.  I finally crossed the finish to the cheers of the earlier finishers.  What a relief to have finished!  It turned out that I picked up enough time on this day's stage to come in 2nd in my age group.  By some mixup, the race director put me first and Bob Dahlgren second.  I emailed him about the mistake, but as of 1 week later, he still hadn't corrected the published results.  I know he's been having trouble with his website, and he'll eventually correct things.


  1. Dan, I am SO pleased to see you posting again! I've missed you in the blogosphere. Last weekend I was rooting for you as you rode in that epic two-stage climb and I cheered out loud when Jim told me where you placed. {I cheered out loud for him, too, of course.} When he told me you were going to race, I said, "Elbow him in the ribs and tell him there are women in Australia and Las Vegas who wish he would keep on writing!" Good to see you post. Good to see you racing and placing!

  2. You're right about that group not carrying any extra weight! The only fat cyclist I saw was a one day license in the 45+ and came in hours after everyone else. We (climbers) don't look like other people. When I was there it was a shock, as I saw myself in so many of them, or rather, this person I've become over the past two years looks more like them than at any other time in my life. It was a revelation. In 2007, when I started riding again, I weighed about 165 - 168 lbs. By August of 2008 I was weighing in at 148, which I've maintained since then. Back in the 70s and 80s as a Cat. 1 roadie, I generally was in the 158- 160 range. I know, all this about weight, but it also has to do with finding yet another niche and recognizing it for what it is. Your remark about turning 60 applies to me as well, it was a shocker! Now I know what I need to do with some of the time I still have left. Climb. I'll be at the Death Valley Road Stage Race in June. Maybe I'll see you there in Big Pine?

  3. To Limes and Badger: Thanks for the good words. You'll know, I suppose, that Steve Barnes had the order of Bob Dahlberg and me switched. He took first, and me second, which is still a good result for me. I told Steve about the mixup, and he will correct it, but hasn't done so yet. He's apparently still having with his website.

    I don't know whether I'll be able to race the Death Valley Stage Race. I'd like to, but family commitments may get in the way. I'll be at Bakersfield though.

    Yes, looking forward to staying in contact with you all. This weekend was Tour of California; yesterday I volunteered at the time trial, and today we were on the Rock House climb watching the guys duke it out. What fun!