I didn’t sleep well at the beach.
Three or four hours passed on the sand, but I awoke several times to anxieties of undesirables who might be lurking in the bush nearby.
My day started at 4am.
I clipped in and rode off into darkness, lights on in the haze. I felt tired, and a little hungover, even. A cumulative effect of suboptimal food, a lot of sun, and 200+ miles in 48 hours. Within a few miles I stopped at an AM/PM, which delivered on their claim of “Too Much Good Stuff.” I stocked up for the day ahead. Nuts & drinks.
I collected myself at the gas station a while with a cup of coffee, yogurt, and chocolate milk, and called Mary to discuss the ride. She knew I could have pushed on further the night before, which would have been a better setup for a final push up into the mountains.
I didn’t tell her at the time, but there at the gas station, I started to consider a monster effort to ride the route from the ocean all the way home to Idyllwild in one push. It would mean a 130 mile day, with the bulk of the route’s climbing ahead.
First things first
The big push concept was daunting. I had to break it into steps, starting with the clearing of my foggy head, and did my best not to make too many calculations about time checks I should aim for along the way.
I soft pedaled to North of The Border bike shop, where there was a care package and friendly note waiting for me. In the package was an assortment of energy gels, electrolyte drinks, and the like. I really appreciated the gesture.
And then there was Penasquitos Canyon. Urban singletrack, early morning stomping grounds for a zillion mountain bikers… and perennial Bermuda Triangle for me. I don’t carry a GPS on the Stagecoach 400 route because having created the route, I know every turn… almost every turn anyway. There are over 300 route cues for the course and I feel utterly comfortable going through the most remote of them by memory alone (I carry maps for reference) but the Penasquitos Canyon twists and turns totally confuse me. The sky overhead is often foggy from the ocean moisture, with city lights reflecting off the haze at night… both take away reference points for me.
And I got lost.
I charged off in the direction I thought I needed to go… then second guessed the decision about a half mile out, and turned around. Then charged up a hill to gain some line of sight perspective. Nothing looked familiar.
I saw a guy on a bike and flagged him down. He was in a hurry, blurted out something about “go that way,” so I did… a mile later it became apparent I was way off track, by a mile.
I turned on my smartphone map and did my best to compare “current location” to the red line on the Trackleaders website. I reminded myself that this too, is part of the challenge. I needed to slow down and solve this early morning riddle. Eventually I found the way and soft pedaled out of my least favorite canyon on the route.
The Circle K where I pulled out, sick, last time. I have bailed on ambitious rides here in the past too. I love and hate that spot. This day, I was feeling stronger, even a little buzzed to ride away from that point under my own power.
I pressed on through Black Mountain and into the San Dieguito River Park area. Great pedaling weather with cool temps and a light breeze. I indulged myself to go ahead and start making plans for the long day ahead in the mountains. The I-15 crossing would be my last viable stop for all resources. I drilled my mind on what I’d do there: order a sandwich, drink chocolate milk while it was being made, stock up on more nuts, mix up some robot drink, etc.
Ranger Dave from the river park Spot stalked me, and provided escort through to the end of his turf. A nice gesture for sure. We moved along at a fast pace, perhaps faster than I wanted to go, but slower than he wanted to go… so just about right. I hit hwy 78 at high heat, and seemingly high traffic. The climb up this long stretch of hot pavement would be the last I’d see of San Diego county’s hustle before turning off into the ranch lands of Pamo Valley.
Up into the hills
When the heat started to break I mixed my last baggie of Perpetuem, which I had been carrying since I left Idyllwild. I had four servings in total and had saved the last one for this climb. I turned the ipod on, more Daft Punk and Pixies. I felt this was a make or break moment of the day- if I could get in a groove and climb strong, I would make the effort to push all the way home.
The climb out of Pamo Valley is a bitch, but I crushed it. Just blew it away. I felt almost too good going up toward Black Canyon, but monitored my legs and breathing to keep it consistent.
Then Sam Johnstone showed up. Sam is an extraordinarily strong bikepacker, and an exceptionally good guy to ride a bike with. He rolled down from his home in Julian, down into the deepest depths of the worst part of the Stagecoach route to come ride with me. Crazy!
“How far you wanna ride today?” he asked
“Well, I’m kinda thinking of going all the way.”
“Yep, but that’s just an idea. We’ll see after Warner Springs.”
Sam was fully loaded for an overnight trip, all in. We pushed on up the Black Canyon climb, riding strong. I was amazed and thrilled to see my legs going strong. Some of the prettiest countryside on the route revealed itself at the top, near Mesa Grande road.
I checked in on Facebook and saw I had quite an audience following my SPOT track, and read through all the well wishes. They all expected me to turn off to Lake Henshaw resort, over a mile off route but the obvious resupply point. I talked it over with Sam, who was loaded well enough that he didn’t need to stop. We blazed the Hwy 79 section to Warner Springs in what felt like record time. We had a strong tail wind, even. I checked my Facebook one more time to see Kevin Hinton’s update on the Stagecoach page: “HE”S GOING FOR IT!”
I phoned Mary to let her know to keep the proverbial light on for me that night.
We took some time visiting with a firefighter in Warner Springs to stretch legs, lube chains, and organize my gear for the night ahead. By this point in the route, well over 300 miles in, my gear became an extension of myself. I could access clothing layers or food items blind, which I figured I’d have to do the final night.
The sun set as we churned up into Lost Valley.
In darkness, I did not turn on my light. “Imagine it’s all a climb” once again my mantra. It was easy to fool myself into believing the whole thing really was “all a climb” since I couldn’t see very far ahead. Every now and then I’d feel my front wheel drop down into a descent. Bonus points, in my mind.
Through Chihuahua Valley and on to the Cienega Truck Trail. The place Kevin and I have called “nut punch mountains.”
UP, down, UP, down, UP, down… Sam disappeared far beyond me. I continued to ride with no light, which meant Sam never really knew how far behind I was.
Body soreness set in. I kept an even pace but allowed very few full stops.
I could not stop and sit, for fear of cramping, or falling asleep.
My mind started to play tricks on me. My vision was off.
I walked a lot.
Jim Truck Trail, climbing out of Anza. The entire thing was a walk. Sand slog at the bottom, rocky at the top. I tripped and stumbled a few times. The cold of the mountain night set in, I donned all of the clothing in my bags at the Speed of Light Reflector.
I don’t remember the conversation Sam and I had at the top of that hill, but he tells me I said something about “Gotta keep moving or the Sleep Monster will get me.”
I do remember a very strong desire to sleep, but at this point I was a scant 14 miles or so from the end.
Garner Valley was very cold, freezing. Ice crystals formed on the road. Sam, underdressed, blazed ahead never to be seen again.
Leaning hard on my aero bars, I was falling asleep on the bike. I would “come to” every now and then and find I was swerving in the road. Thankfully it was about 3am and there was absolutely no traffic at that hour.
I turned on my phone. I texted Mary to let her know I would be back soon. I was still in striking range of keeping to my sub-72 hour goal, but it wasn’t in the bag anymore. I walked up Keen Summit. I walked up past my son’s daycare… a gentle grade even most kids could ride. I gazed at a couple grassy spots and wondered what it would be like to curl up and sleep.
On the bike… time ticking down.
I had less than 20 minutes left to keep the ride under 72 hours.
10 minutes left…. creeping in to town.
5 minutes left… around the bend entering town. Big chainring, out of the saddle 100% effort down to the elementary school. Aero tuck.
Climb up North Circle, 3 minutes left.
Time check 71 hours, 58 minutes. Done.
I cried. On the steps of the bike shop, accomplishment.
I floated in a sense of bewilderment the next day. Folks around town asked how my ride was; I puffed with pride. The route I’d created was no longer my own nemesis.