On the weekend of October 17, 2009, six riders from Indiana joined about 160 other riders from around the world to complete in the 100-mile JDRF ride to cure diabetes in Death Valley, California. The trip started with a 4AM alarm on Thursday to be up for a 6:45 flight to Denver. Kevin and his wife Janette picked me up at 4:45 for the drive to the airport. Janette is a saint for coming out in the cold rain at that time of day to take us to the airport. Bob, Danny, Kevin, Rick and I grouped together to get on the flight to Denver. Where’s Michael? Different flight, different airline. We’ll see him in Vegas.
We got to Denver on schedule and had some time to kill, so we carbo loaded at McDonald’s while we waited for our flight. The plane left Denver and arrived in Vegas on time. We made our way to ground transportation and the baggage carousel to be met by the first of many awesome JDRF volunteers. They got us to the bus and handed us a box lunch for the ride to Death Valley. We boarded the bus and found Michael waiting there.
We made a quick stop at a hotel to pick up the luggage and bike boxes of two riders who arrived early and were riding from Vegas to Death Valley on their bikes. I guess 100 miles on Saturday wasn’t enough for them… yikes!
We then stopped at Wal*Mart in Pahrump (as in Pahrump pa pum pum) for some essentials given that supplies are limited in Death Valley. Essentials for Kevin and me consisted of Double-Stuf Golden Oreos, trail mix, and a twelve of Samuel Adams Oktoberfest. We also split a six-pack of Gatorade G2 with Wade, a rider from Seattle. Wade will show up again later.
We drank a couple of beers on the road to the ranch, talked about expensive bikes and parts and told tall tales with those sitting around us. We lost cell service about an hour from Death Valley. It didn’t come back til we hit the same spot on the way home.
It takes more than two hours to get from Las Vegas to Furnace Creek Ranch, located in the valley at 190 feet below sea level. We got off the bus, grabbed our stuff and registered at ride check-in. We got our room key and soon learned that we were in building 900, which was recently refurbished. It had new paint and carpet, granite countertops and new tile in the bathroom and new furniture and fixtures. Nice. The question of the day soon became: “are you in the 900 building?” So we, of course, started making up stories about extra sitting rooms, bathroom attendants and masseuses in our “900” rooms. The most puzzling “extra” was Danny’s claim of a chocolate on his pillow in the morning. In the morning? Danny must know of a chocolate fairy the rest of us hadn’t heard of…
After quickly settling in our rooms, we went out and claimed our bikes and picked up a case of bottled water. Since it was still early, we decided a short, shake-down ride would be in order. We rode to the Borax Works a mile or so down the road and chatted with an interesting local fellow who filled us in on the story of the Amargosa Opera House. While this looked more like a roadside motel to most of us, it actually housed a performance group, lead by a prima-ballerina (now in her 80s) who was once featured in National Geographic. Amazing what you can learn by asking a local a simple question.
We rode a couple miles before turning around. As we were making our way back to the ranch, we came upon a rider walking his bike along the road. Walking. In the desert. In bicycle shoes with cleats. It was Gatorade Wade and it seems he had a flat a little earlier. He had changed the tube and inflated it with CO2, but it wasn’t holding. “Bad gas” Danny soberly diagnosed. Bob carries a pump so we got Wade’s tire inflated and on his way down the road, now pedaling in his cleats. We all felt much better about his chances of getting back to the ranch safely.
We noticed on the ride back that the water in our insulated bottles was getting hot from the heat reflected up from the blacktop. This was after only six miles. My bike thermometer read 99. Saturday’s high was forecast to be 104. 100 miles on Saturday seemed concerning at this point.
We made our way back to the ranch. A few of the guys went for a swim in the very warm, hot-spring fed pool. I wandered the grounds a bit and took some photos of the desert during sunset. Once the sun went down, it cooled off quickly.
We had grilled hamburgers and hot dogs for dinner with the riders, crew and volunteers. We had lots of laughs with the team and then headed to bed pretty early given the early start to the day and time change.
Friday started before dawn with a breakfast buffet in the ranch restaurant. Full of food and back in the room (and yes, Double Stuf Golden Oreos make a fine breakfast dessert, thank you), we donned our bike kits, slathered on loads of sunscreen, filled our bottles and got ready for the mandatory safety briefing. We sat in the blazing sun while Tim, Brock and others filled us in on the dangers of the desert and the extreme conditions we were preparing to ride in. I think they were trying to scare us. It worked.
Following the safety briefing, we found our bikes and headed out for a short tune-up ride. The scheduled ride was a two-mile run up to Golden Canyon and back. We decided to be a bit more ambitious and headed to Zabriskie point, about 5 miles up the road, with Bob and me considering riding on to Dante’s view, 25 miles ahead and a 5400 ft. climb up. Zabriskie provided an awesome view of the barren desert in the morning light, but was a bit of a hellish climb to get to. Michael was having bad stomach cramps and the group was feeling a bit hot and tired after the short ride, so most headed back to the ranch. Bob and I rode on, aiming for the turn-off for Dante’s view. We rode about 10 miles up (yes, still gently climbing) before turning back, never reaching Dante’s side road. The 10 mile coast back down the hill was wonderful.
My bike was having some trouble shifting onto the big ring during the tune-up ride, so I visited the mechanics on-site for the ride. What we thought would be a quick fix turned into an hour-long adjustment session with three of us riding my bike trying to get it to shift. We finally got it adjusted to the point that it would shift and by this time the guys had sent out a search party for me. I changed quickly and joined them for a diner lunch in the Forty-Niner.
We went back to the room and rested a while and then went to a talk on how to get the most out of the ride. We returned to the room, aired up our bike tires, got our riding kits ready and then to dinner. Dinner the night before the big ride consisted mainly of pasta and other complex carbs. After dinner, the organizers recognized new and returning riders and some riders were given awards for fund-raising and recruiting. Our friend Bob Karnack got a podium finish for raising more than $14,000… way to go Bob!
Then we were off to bed early again, with the alarm set for 4:30 so we could get to the breakfast buffet by 5 and be ready to start the ride at 6:45.
The morning started clear and pleasant with temps in the low 70s. After lining up for a photo, hearing the national anthem and getting ourselves sorted into groupings by speed, we set off. Michael started in the fastest group at the front. The rest of the team started in the second group and stayed together for the first-mile climb to the turn-off for Badwater. After the turn, the road starts to slope down, at which point I separated from the group and found my comfortable pace. I joined up with a group of riders from Arizona and Wisconsin and rode with them until the first stop at Badwater – 282 feet below sea level. 18 miles done.
After a quick “de-“hydration, bottle refill and snack, I saw Kevin ride in. I held his bike while he took a break and then we set off together. No sign of Danny, Bob or Rick behind or Michael ahead. After a couple of miles, my comfortable pace was a bit quicker than Kevin’s and we slowly separated. From that point on, I would ride by myself.
At the start of the ride, the mountains to the east shadowed the roadway and most of the mountains to the west. As we rode, the shadow ominously crept down the mountain and across the valley. At about an hour and a half into the ride, the east mountain ran out and I was in full sun… and would be for the rest of the ride.
I rode a brief time with Joe from Colorado. He said he lived at about 5000 feet, and climbed a lot during his training. He’s hoping being below sea level will be an advantage. I carried on to the next stop at Mormon point for a quick visit to the porta-potty, a water and Gatorade refill and head out just as Kevin is pulling in. 16 more miles done.
The next stop at Ashford Mill is 11 miles away and is at the base of the big, 7-mile climb to the mid-point of the ride. 11 miles should be just over half-an-hour, I think. About this time my left foot and leg begin to ache, a pain that will be with me for the rest of the ride. The coaches warned us that the climb started after Mormon point, so now I’m going up hill. They didn’t warn us of the wind, though. Now I’m by myself, slogging uphill with pain and against a decent head-wind. Ugh. This might be a long day.
Riding alone has its advantages and disadvantages. On the up side, you can ride at your own pace and cadence without worrying about what other riders around you are doing. The downside is there is no one there to give you encouragement while chasing your back wheel or giving you a break from the wind while they pull you down the road. At this point, I was wishing for some other riders.
I make Ashford Mill in about 45 minutes and take a quick break for some peanut butter sandwiches, a water refill and a cold towel around my neck. As I arrive, the first rider to come down the hill stops at the rest area. He hurriedly grabs food and asks for his water bottles out of a cooler. No sense carrying that extra weight to the top, he’ll tell me later. 11 more miles done.
I leave the rest area and start the climb to the top of Jubilee Pass, 7 miles and 1200 feet above me. I pass one rider who says he hates to climb and then settle into a steady pace at about 7 mph with tired and sore legs from the wind, climb and previous 44 miles. About half-way up I try to shift into a lower gear on my rear cassette only to realize there are no more lower gears. So I shift onto my small ring, something I have rarely done on a climb in Indiana. I continue to climb, watching riders in the opposite lane speed by on the downhill. Some yell encouragement, others glide by nearly silently. I finally see the sign indicating the rest stop is one mile ahead. This will be the longest mile of the ride. After pedaling for nearly an hour up the hill, I now see the top of the rest area tent. As I draw nearer to the tent, with the volunteers cheering loudly, I realize it is on the other side of the road. This suggests to me that the stop is on the way back down and I need to climb past it. Huh? I ride over to it where several riders (including Michael who I see for the first time since the start) and volunteers tell me the top is a little farther up and I need to ride on to make the top and complete the climb. Huh? A volunteer throws an iced towel around my neck and I make the summit. A sign marks the top and I see over the other side, where a cop car is parked to warn on-coming traffic of the cyclists ahead. I turn around and head into the rest area for real this time. 7 long, long miles done.
After the ride, I learn of some amazing demonstrations of “heart” on this hill. One woman climbs the entire 7 miles three times in honor of those with diabetes for whom she is riding. Wow. As coach Tim would say, “that’s stout.” Another is of a woman who is being coached up after 5 miles of climbing. She says the pedals just won’t turn. The coach encourages her that she has only two more miles to go. She says she can’t, the pedals just won’t make the bike go. The coach suggests she take a break and he’ll have a look at the bike. She sits by the roadside while he has a look… to find a flat tire! She’s been climbing for 5 miles on a flat. They fix the tire and she completed the climb… and the ultimately the entire ride.
After a short rest, some food and cold water, I refill my empty bottles (remember the lead rider thought his bottles were useless weight, I drank mine during the hour it took to climb) and start the ride down. While exhilarating after the climb and recognizing that I am now counting down the miles, the road is pretty rough and disconcerting at high speed. My hands start to ache while being shaken by the road surface. I try all three hand positions over and over again, trying to find a comfortable spot, but there isn’t one. I yell encouragement to the riders climbing up. I see Bob and Kevin and Rick and Dan on their way up. I reach the bottom and mostly coast back into the Ashford Mill stop. I didn’t drink on the way down but get some ice in my water bottle from one of the volunteers. I comment that the wind is still from the south. The volunteer says it has been calming down and this is usually the time it switches direction and comes from the north. I ask what time that usually happens? Around noon he says. It’s 11:15. I don’t want to face a head wind back in, so another rider and I start on the ride back. 7 more miles down. Only 45 to go.
Again my pace is slightly faster than my fellow rider and we separate. Death Valley is incredibly serene, still and quiet. Riding alone, the only sounds you hear are the air going by, your own breathing, the drive train on the bike, and the melting tar that seals the cracks in the road popping as your tires pass over it. In some places the tar is liquid in the heat of the day.
The 11 miles out seemed unusually long due to the climb and the wind. Should be faster going back I think. I look for the 1-mile marker for what seems like forever. No sign. No sign. Finally, after what seems like ages I see the sign and the rest stop. I take a brief respite in what had to be the hottest spot in the valley… the porta-potty at Mormon Point. With it sitting unprotected under the unrelenting sun, the temp was extreme inside. No dallying there. I grab a sandwich and water and eat a Clif Bar while talking with the volunteers about the riders who didn’t make it to this stop in time to make the summit and had to be turned back. They headed back cheerfully considering the heat. Can’t blame them. I also refill the Gatorade for the fourth time. Now it has 4 or 5 combined flavors of powdered Gatorade in it. Hot Gatorade is really bad when it’s one flavor. When 4 are mixed and it’s hot, it is truly awful. Yuck. 34 miles to go.
The next section is relatively flat, with long curved sections of road that snake around the rubble that has been shed by the mountains. As I ride alone with very few cars on the road, I realize that there is absolutely no shelter in Death Valley. No trees. No over- or underpasses. No rocky outcrops. Nothing. If you get stranded, you are completely exposed until you can get in a vehicle or under a portable shelter. Not a place to be unprepared.
I pass a slower rider and soon Badwater comes into view. I coast in and find Michael again, just finishing his break there. My water bottle is completely dry so I refill. I dump what remains of the awful Gatorade “suicide” and refill it, half with a fresh Gatorade bottle from a cooler, half with cold water. Maybe it will stay cool long enough to still taste good. 18 miles to go.
Unlike the previous 16 miles, the last 18 miles go over the mountain effluent rather than around it. This means 18 miles of repeated climbs and down hills. Each downhill is a much-needed relief, each uphill reawakens the pain in my foot and leg. At 10 miles out there is a tent with cold water. I need a refill and stop just long enough to get more cold water. More ups and downs. I can see the ranch. More ups and downs. The thermometer on my bike reads 104. One more mile to go to the turnoff toward the ranch and it is uphill. This is the second longest mile on the ride. The road climbs gently until the last few yards and then rises steeply to meet route 190 where we turn toward the ranch. I reach the stop and make the left for the final mile down the hill to the ranch. Wow!
I made it! I cross the finish line at just over 7 ½ hours with 102 miles showing on my computer. Someone hands me a medal and puts another cold towel around my neck. I start to take my bike to the mechanics for shipping home and am told to visit the medical room, a required stop for all riders at the finish. I step inside to find Michael being tended to. Seems he arrived about 10 minutes before I did and is having his blood sugar and vitals checked (you can read more about his ride below or on his blog here). I wait for another rider to be checked and then sit on the bed for a quick once over. The EMT takes my pulse and blood pressure and asks how far I went and how long I’d been done. She seems impressed that everyone rode 100+ miles in the heat of the desert.
Declared fit, I step back out and get my bike, which has been sitting in the sun. The thermometer now reads 118 in the direct sun. I’m handed an ice cream bar, which I eat while chatting with some of the volunteers. I take my bike to the truck and check it in for the trip home. It has served me well once again.
I go into the room, call home to report my finish, and take a quick shower. I grab a beer and head back out to the finish to celebrate the other riders as they come in. Rick’s bike is by the door, so I know he made it back. I learn later that he called it at about 65 miles. I chat with the other riders as we wait for the rest of team Indiana to come in. Danny arrives first, then Kevin. I learn that Danny called it at 85 miles but Kevin rode the distance. And then a while later, Bob rolls across the finish. I learn that he helped several riders summit, by climbing part way up the big hill multiple times before finishing the ride. Again, “that’s stout.”
We have dinner and the awards and special jerseys are given. We learn that this ride, thanks to your support, raised more than $700,000 and the total from the ride program is more than $4 million.
We crash early, again with the alarm set for 4:30 to get breakfast before boarding the bus back to Vegas at 6 AM. The 2+ hour bus ride is a bit more somber on the way back, with dozing riders and e-mail checking on phones. We make a few jokes as we get to airport and get checked in. Rick asks for the last time, “where’s Michael?” Different flight, different airline. We won’t see him again this trip. The flights to Denver and Indy are smooth and on-time. My wife Sandy meets Kevin and me at the door out of ground transportation. We head for home and begin telling our stories. Later that night the tears will flow as I tell Sandy about the inspirational people I met and the amazing things I saw. This was a trip and century ride I will never forget.
Thank you for sharing in my ride this year, I truly appreciate your support. I may have been the one pedaling over the miles, but I carried your thoughts, prayers and support with me on each mile, and I would not have made it without you. Thank you!