Me on Cayuga Heights Road, overlooking Ithaca, NY, near the very end of Quadzilla.
As my long-awaited event, the hilly, 400-mile Quadzilla, unfolded this past weekend, my body performed as requested, but my mind did not always follow. This is a bit ironic, because going into the ride I was questioning my physical state more than my mental state. So it goes. You can’t predict everything.
I arrived at the Wegmann’s Supermarket parking lot in Ithaca, NY on Saturday morning for the 5 a.m. start with a good case of the pre-ride jitters. There were 23 Quadzilla entrants, including organizer Mark Frank, for the start. It was still full dark when we rolled slowly onto Route 13 south and began a journey that we all hoped would finish successfully 40 hours later at the Meadow Court Inn across the street. Little did we know how hard success would be.
Many long-distance brevet riders I respect have called Quadzilla the toughest ride they have attempted. The ride has been held about 10 times since it was started by Mark Frank in the mid-1990s. At first, it was called the Finger Lakes 350. Then he made the fateful decision to add another hilly 50 miles and call it Quadzilla. A monstrous four century tour of 11 lakes and seemingly every uphill road around them. About half the field finishes in a typical year.
The course can perhaps best be summed up by this familiar children’s song that keeps repeating itself: “The bear went over the mountain and what do you think he saw? He saw another mountain,” etc. Imagine being the bear in that song for two days. If there was a fork in the road, you could assume the route headed the more upward pointing way.
The weather felt cool and comfortable at the start. The two women in the field, female record holder Michelle D. from New York and Leslie H. from Colorado, set a comfortable pace for the pack over the first three miles to the first climb, up Route 327. Three riders almost immediately went ahead and disappeared down the road. I thought about joining them, but thought better of it. Then a quick right and the climb was on, steep at first.
Later power meter readings would show that this climb continued on and off for the next 30 minutes or so. The first five minutes I averaged 299 watts, a respectable number for me on a first climb, though nothing outrageous. Eventually one of the three leading riders dropped back to our group of five, which seemed to be the second group on the road for many miles. After a long downhill, the five of us stayed together more or less for a while, eventually thinning to three by the time we stopped for water at mile 38 in Watkins Glen.
The way I analyzed this ride, sleep would play a big role for me. I do not function well mentally or physically if I go completely through the night without sleep. At PBP in 2007, I couldn’t find my hotel in Loudeac and ended up skipping my sleep stop and riding 46 hours before sleeping. I am now convinced that that was a major contributing factor to my DNF on that ride. I was determined to get at least 3 hours of time for the sleep stop in Auburn, allowing me at least 90 minutes of sleep.
Unfortunately, Quadizlla is 25 miles longer than a standard 600k, with the same time limit of 40 hours and a course that has to be as hilly as any 600k anywhere. That means the sleep stop at the Super 8 comes at mile 270. To get there by 5 a.m., in order to depart at 8 a.m., would not be easy. But I had no idea how much harder I would make it.
This was my first trip to the Finger Lakes and I very quickly began to appreciate the spectacular views from the many hills we were climbing. Lakes and hills were everywhere. Even I, cautious as ever on descents, was hitting the mid-40s on these downhills. Physically, I felt good. Mark the organizer was at the front a lot during this first section. I remember thinking how strong he looked.
At Watkins Glen, Mark and another rider left before me, as I decided to spend a couple of extra minutes finishing my chocolate donuts (it works for me). That left me alone for the first time and required me to start paying close attention to the cue sheet. After all, I no longer was riding behind the organizer. Going out of the parking lot, I made a right instead of a left. Just like that, I wasted a mile going right and a mile retracing my steps when I realized my mistake. Each mile represented about six minutes of lost time. So I had gained 90 minutes to that point on the road, then gave 12 of them back.
No problem, I thought. I just kept on alone. I kept nearly catching up to Marcel M. from Quebec, who seemed to be having all sorts of problems with his cue sheet and his English. But somehow he made up for it with sheer strength and determination. I frequently saw him during the next 40 miles or so, as we rode through more persistent heat and humidity. At mile 75 or so, we rolled through the town of Hammondsport, as usual along the lake. All the towns seemed to be on the lakes, and at the bottom of the elevation scale.
Sure enough, the first really nasty grade of the ride, Greyton Taylor Mem. Blvd., greeted us on the outskirts of town. This ride, exposed to the increasing heat, must have baked my brain, because about five miles later, my concentration failed me. The cue sheet clearly said, “Mattoon Rd, R.” But instead of turning right, I turned left.
It was only after six miles, when the road turned to dirt, that I realized my mistake. I probably lost close to an hour. It demoralized me at first. Now with 80 miles in, I only had about an hour of time banked. I needed at least three hours by the sleep stop at mile 270 in Auburn. The climbing now felt relentless, capped by a vicious assent up Gannett Hill for the first checkpoint. By now many riders had passed me and was nearer the back of the pack then the front. But I started seeing fewer and fewer riders as I went on.
I opted for the full 400-mile option at the 132-mile checkpoint at Springwater, then pulled in right on my schedule about 7:40 p.m. at Letchworth State Park, where I answered the question about the plaque overlooking the waterfall. A wedding party was being photographed, with a recording of Whitney Houston hits in the background (”IIIIIIIIIIIII, will alwaaaaaaaaaaays, love youuuuuuuuuuu). Lauren, one of the volunteers at this stop, at about mile 167, commented that I looked good. I started to believe I would be OK. I now had two hours of time to spare. I needed a third to sleep. Without sleep, I didn’t think I would ride fast enough to make the time cut.
The next two stages were in darkness. A cover band playing T-Rex’s “Bang a Gong,” lifted my spirits further. I wasn’t exactly rocking along the highway, but I was getting there. The second overnight stage, from the lakeshore town of Canandaiga to the Auburn sleep stop, was relatively flat and I was able to pick up that coveted third hour. I walked into the Super 8 at exactly 5 a.m. Perfect. Counting the 14 bonus miles, I had just gone 284 very hilly miles in 24 hours, the second furthest I have ever ridden in a day, behind the 324 on the very flat NJ 600k in 2007. I am convinced this was the toughest 24 hours I’ve spent on a bicycle. Because this ride had so many long uphills and downhills, average power was less reliable than on flatter rides. Normalized power is a better metric. My normalized power for the 24-hour period was 169 watts, the best ever for that amount of time.
Without even eating much, I showered, changed clothes and fell asleep by 5:45. Though I arranged a 7:30 wakeup call, I woke by myself at 7:15, getting 90 minutes of deep sleep. It doesn’t sound like much and it wasn’t. But it would have to do. I rolled out again a few minutes before 8. About 128 miles to cover in 13 hours, if I was to make the cutoff.
Some of the climbs on the second day were brutal, especially Hitchings Road, which the cue sheet labels “a real ass biter.” It didn’t disappoint. You could see the climb looming ahead, filling your heart with despair. I slogged up it though, averaging a respectable 245 watts for the first five minutes, the steepest part. Many thanks to my secret weapon, my granny gear of a 30-34. It was put to good use.
I was starting to feel better about my chances of finishing when the rain began. It came and went for hours, at times drenching me. It slowed my descent to a crawl at times. I began to worry again about time. I had about 45 minutes in hand, enough for a small mechanical or two. After a third route mistake, costing me an additional two miles, about 40 miles from the finish, I caught up with Craig M. and we rode together more or less for the last 3o miles or so back to the finish. The rain stopped. We picked up a little more time. Craig and I had ridden together for parts of the Endless Mountains 1240k last fall and we had an eerily similar conversation about how few people were still on the course. Last fall it was 22 of 48 starters who finished. This time the percentage was even lower.
After Craig and I finished, Mark Frank said his preliminary figures were only seven Quadzilla finishers this year out of 23 starters. As it turned out, there were a total of 9 riders making the 40-hour cutoff. Allowing for age adjusted times, there were a total of 11 Quadzilla finishers and three finishers of the Finger Lakes 350. I was thrilled to be one of them. I had survived on just 90 minutes of sleep for nearly 40 hours through the hilliest course you can imagine. Whatever else happens the rest of this year, my goal is met. My season is made.
Congratulations to Dennis DeLong and Henrik Olsen on setting a new Quadzilla course record at 29:54.
My goal event has gone successfully and now it’s a rest week. I will decide this weekend whether I want to ride the PA 1000k. I feel pretty beaten up right now.