On July 29, 2004, I awoke at 2:45am. Tired and still sleepy, I drove to Enumclaw High School to volunteer at the starting line of the RAMROD cycling event. RAMROD (Ride Around Mount Rainier in One Day) is a 153 mile, annual cycling event with an elevation gain of 10,000 feet. This means that the ride is not only very long, it also has many steep hills and mountain passes that go on for miles and miles. It also happens to be one of the premier cycling events in the country because of its beautiful setting and its level of difficulty. Cyclists from around the country participate in the event.
So, who was the typical cyclist that I saw at the starting line of the 2004 RAMROD? Mostly young, strong, and lean men (age 25-35) with very muscular and well-defined calves that were the size of my thighs. I am 52. Oh yes, most had very light and expensive bikes. After finishing my volunteer stint at the starting line (start time was 5:00 – 7:00 am) I decided to drive my car around the 153-mile event route to help out at the other support stations. It took me nearly 4 hours to drive the whole course and I was tired at the end! I thought to myself, this is something I could NEVER do. I even wrote on the route map “Must Be In Serious Shape”.
Now let’s jump ahead to February 28, 2005. I received an e-mail informing me that I had been awarded a spot in the 2005 RAMROD event since I had volunteered the prior year. Here was my chance! The RAMROD is a lottery that accepts 800 riders. Some get chosen and others don’t. I went ahead and registered, doubting that I would ever be prepared enough to successfully complete the event. The 2005 RAMROD was scheduled for July 28, 2005 – the five months seemed like an eternity.
Four friends joined me for 2005 RAMROD – Jimmy, Moshe, Rob, and David. Special credit goes to Jimmy for scheduling and organizing a series of training rides that helped us get into shape, both physically and mentally. The training rides (there were six total) started in June. The rides ranged from 60 -100 miles each going over the actual mountain passes that were part of RAMROD. The goal was to practice riding the most challenging parts of the course. These rides helped me familiarize myself with the most difficult part of the event – the mountain passes. Just imagine riding up a steep hill for 8 miles. It seems to go on forever! There were times during these long ascents that I felt like turning around and going back down the hill. I thought I would never reach the top.
The first mountain pass that I ever rode up was to Sunrise lookout – a 10-mile ascent. It was hot and my butt was sore from the prior 40 miles. It took a good two hours to get to the top. I was overjoyed that I had actually done it! The view was incredible and the other riders cheered me on. This was a major breakthrough that provided me with the confidence to do the other mountain passes, because I now knew that I was capable of something that I’d previously thought was impossible. In future training rides, the extraordinary became ordinary through repetition, hard physical work and familiarity. These training rides, combined with Jimmy’s encouragement and coaching, were critical factors in helping me realize that I might actually have a chance of completing RAMROD. I adopted the attitude that I would be successful just by being part of the RAMROD event, even if I didn’t finish it. Now that I had let go of the outcome, I allowed myself to enjoy the event, regardless of the outcome. What a weight off my shoulders!
In addition to the training rides, I put up a map of Mt. Rainier National Park in my bathroom. Every time I would go in this room, I would look at the map and mentally absorb the details of the route. I would visualize the actual roads as I looked at the lines that represented them on the map. I eventually knew almost every curve in the roads that we would ride.
As July 28th approached, and as I completed more training rides, I began to feel more confident. I allowed certain things, however, to undermine my confidence. For example, during the training rides we never did the first 60 miles of the event so this was a constant unknown. In addition, the training rides were each 100 miles or less, so I was unsure how I would do on a 153-mile ride. During most of the training rides, we tackled the long ascents with “fresh” legs while in the actual event we would ride 60 miles before even starting the mountain ascents. I allowed all of these unknowns to float around in my head while stirring up uncertainty and doubting my abilities. What a waste of energy thinking of all the “what ifs”!
Stuart at Eatonville – Mile 32
The night before RAMROD, Jimmy hosted a Pasta and Fish feast to load up on Carbs and Protein. I had been reading “The Lance Armstrong Performance Program” and following the Tour de France in hopes of learning more about proper nutrition for long distance cycling. Loading up on Carbs is important – so I did it. After dinner, I went home and organized all of my stuff, including making several peanut butter and jelly bagel sandwiches. I went to bed at 9:15 pm. I awoke at 2:50 am, got dressed and went back to Jimmy’s for a Carb-filled breakfast of oatmeal, pancakes and omelets. I wasn’t even hungry, but I ate anyway knowing that I would need the calories. I ended up burning about 7,000 on the ride.
We drove to Enumclaw high school and were at the starting line at 5:30 am. It was cool, clear and the mountain was just starting to light up. The first 60 miles were on beautiful country roads through rural Washington. Lots of farms, cows, associated sounds and scents. I rode with David and we paced each other. Many younger riders passed us – and it was tempting to follow them to join their pace lines. That would have been disastrous since I would have quickly burned out my legs. David helped me resist the urge and stay at our pace, which got us to the lunch stop at 9:45 am. We rested, forced down more food, applied more lubricant to our cycling shorts, and headed into Mt. Rainier National Park to conquer the three mountain passes.
The first ascent lead to Paradise – this is a 19-mile ride with the first 6 miles a gradual slope up to Longmire. The slope then turns much steeper. It took me 2.5 hours to go these 19 miles, but my legs felt strong and I kept a pace of about 6 mph. Reaching Paradise created a great feeling that I conquered the first pass. There is a time element associated with RAMROD in that you must be through with all the mountain passes by 6:00 pm or they sweep you off the course by picking you and your bike up in a truck. According to my rough calculations, I estimated that I would reach the top of the final pass at 5:30 pm with one half hour to spare. At this point, I was feeling very confident that I would finish in time. After refilling my water bottles and forcing more food down, I started a very long and fast descent to Box Canyon where more food was awaiting.
Someone asked me what I thought about during the 11.5 hours I was on my bike. Most of my thoughts were focused on moving forward, staying in control of my bike, making sure I drank and ate enough, and watching out for loose gravel, pot holes and other road hazards. When I was riding in a pace line, I was very focused on the rear wheel of the person riding in front of me. A pace line is a group of cyclists, usually going 20-25 mph, riding in close, single-file formation. If the bike in front of you slows down, so do you. If it speeds up, so do you. It takes active concentration and much focus. When I wasn’t focused on the road, I would look up to remind myself that I was cycling through one of the most beautiful and scenic national parks in America. I thought about how fortunate I am to live in such a beautiful part of the country; and that I want to get out and enjoy it more often.
After a brief rest at Box Canyon, I was ready to go up the second pass, Backbone Ridge. This is a much shorter and less steep pass that took about 45 minutes to ascend. A fun and fast descent to Route 123 followed. I was now on the road, which leads to the final and most steep pass, named Cayuse Pass. It was now 2:38 pm and I had 3.5 hours to cycle 12 miles, 8 of which would be very steep. No Problem, I thought. As I started this familiar stretch of road, my legs and seat were feeling good, but the biggest challenge of the ride was in front of me. I approached the steep ascent with the philosophy of “slow and consistent”. One mile at a time. I kept reminding myself that I wasn’t in a race (I can be fairly competitive). My goal was simply to get to the top before 6:00 pm. I was in the easiest (lowest) gear – sometimes referred to as the “Granny Gear” moving at 5-6 mph. I would stop every mile for a quick snack and rest. It seemed to go on forever! I finally reached the top of Cayuse Pass (4675 ft) at 4:56 pm. It was the highlight of the ride knowing that I had successfully ridden up three mountain passes and that the rest of the ride was almost all down hill. I lingered on the top of the pass, relishing my accomplishment. I was now at mile 110 of the event with 43 miles remaining. My seat was starting to hurt since I had not been taking adequate amounts of Advil.
I hooked up with Brian and Manny (two prototypical 30-something cyclists) to form a pace-line for the long descent back to Enumclaw High School. There is usually a strong wind blowing up the pass, which can slow you down if you ride individually. Pace-lines keep you moving much faster by reducing the wind drag. We zoomed down the mountain pass at 35-40 mph, very focused on the pot-filled road. We skipped the last food stop, anxious to finish the event and get off our bikes. It took nearly 2.5 hours of constant cycling to finish the event. My seat was getting very tired and very sore. When we rode through the finish line at 7:45 pm, I was surprised to find myself with energy to spare. I wasn’t totally wiped out; in fact, I was sort of sad that it was over. This event challenged me both physically and mentally more than anything I had ever undertaken in my life, and I was disappointed that my adventure had ended.
The final stats: I was on my bike for 11 hours and 32 minutes, averaging 13.2 mph over the 153-mile course.
I succeeded in moving myself out of my comfort zone and into my courage zone.