I am sitting in the living room recliner, basking in self-satisfaction at having finished the inaugural Endless Mountains 1240k within the required 93 hours. The exhilaration of finishing has not left me, 24 hours later. I will remember both the ride and my co-riders with great fondness for a very long time. And, eventually, I will tire of patting myself on the back.
This has to go down as one of the toughest 1200ks in recent memory. It seemed that a 776-mile course filled with relentless climbing, plus cold, rainy conditions, doomed many hopes. People often speak about the desire, mental toughness and determination of grand randonnee finishers. But I think most riders, including many of the Did Not Finishes on this ride, possess those qualities. In my own four DNFs, which include Paris-Brest-Paris, lack of preparation, not lack of desire, spelt defeat. This year I also made my share of mistakes. Fortunately, I was able to solve them in time, but the result was in doubt to the very end.
Day One (208 miles) - Life is Good, For Now
There were 48 riders at the start in Quakertown for the first ever Endless Mountains grand randonnee. It is advertised as having 60,000 vertical feet of climbing, about twice that of a typical 1200k. That's two ascents of Mt. Everest in four days. Having built the entire season around this ride, I was very conscious of training for repeated, intense climbing. Regional Brevet Administrator Tom Rosenbauer is not known as "Torture Tom" for nothing. I have ridden his courses since he designed his first one for a 600k for former NJ/NY RBA Diane Goodwin in 2003. Here, he warned everybody upfront to expect a quantum leap in difficulty from anything we had seen from him before. He was right.
At the start, I was in the A group, which supposedly had faster riders. We left at 4:00 a.m. The remaining riders, the B group, left 15 minutes later. I had my doubts about belonging with such fast riders and toyed with the idea of switching, but decided to try to stay with the pack until the first control at Danielville at mile 34. Faster riding meant more sleep, which I intended to get.
Off we went into the darkness, the weather rather benign. The pace soon felt on the strong side and I began questioning the wisdom of risking fried legs early on such a difficult ride. Finally, a group of 4-5 riders went off the front. I think these stayed as the front group for quite a while after. I watched the gap form between them and me and let it happen without protest. I rolled into the control, feeling good, but the first real climb, Blue Mountain, was just ahead.
As I ascended the mountain alone, I waited for the steeper section when my legs usually complained and I had trouble keeping my rhythm. To my surprise, I reached the yellow "truck on cheese" sign at the top without feeling the burn. Either my legs were numb or my training was paying off. We would see how long this good feeling would last.
Next up at mile 61 was Fox Gap, probably the most used major climb on Tom's rides. It runs about 2 miles, averages about 8 percent and features speeding traffic which can be distracting for the concentration so essential to effective climbing. Up I went, still feeling good. So upbeat were my spirits that even losing my cell phone and balaclava out of my rear bag didn't bring me down. The ride was young. And two kind riders found both of them and brought them back to me. I think they were Dan Clinkinbeard and Henk Bouhuysen. It might also have been Jeff Bauer. Sorry. Some of my memories are a little foggy.
As we crossed the footbridge at Portland into New Jersey, the good vibes continued. The long climb of Millbrook Road went well, the third of the five big climbs of Day One. I stopped at the Layton General Store near the Delaware Water Gap park for some lunch and got to know Dan, a veteran randonneur from Missouri, one of the friendliest riders around. We seemed to run into each other at food stops, because I remember stopping with him at a food market on the morning of Day 3.
At mile 106, we crossed the Dingman's Ferry Bridge (still privately owned) back into PA. Awaiting us few miles later was the steep climb of Raymondskill Falls. I continued to be upbeat. Big Climb No. 4 completed. We crossed into New York state for a few miles beginning at Barryville, then climbed slowly up the Lackawaxen River, back in Pennsylvania again. Having ridden Tom's 1000k this spring, I knew this part of the route well. I also knew Tom had some surprises in store.
The first one came about mile 156 with Tom's infamous "detour" because of a bridge closing. He apparently swapped a gentle valley route for a nasty succession of ascents and descents of what seemed like four ridges. Climbing and descending ridges is what Tom's rides do most, it seems. Better deal with it, I thought. I wonder what else Tom has in store. By the steep, grinding climb of Mt. Salem, the final big elevation gain of the day and the literal high point of the event, at mile 170 or so, my legs were beginning to complain loudly. But in I rolled to the first overnight control in Halstead at 9:13, right on my schedule. Five seconds after my head hit the pillow, I was asleep.
Day Two (216 miles) - Tom's Central Pennsylvania Roller Derby
Having foolishly not slept for the first 44 hours of PBP, I was determined, if possible, to stay at each of the three sleep stops for six hours and sleep for at least four hours each time. I didn't quite live up to this vow. I cut this one slightly short, leaving about 3 a.m. having slept for 3 and a half hours. Alone I went north down U.S. Route 11, where it started lightly raining. Just across the New York line and a little before Binghamton, a long freight train passed in my direction, breaking the pre-dawn silence as the rain grew heavier. It was below 40 degrees. This was potentially big trouble, as I do not react well to cold.
Three of my four DNFs were related in part to cold. The 2006 NJ 200k featured snow, sleet and freezing rain. The 2007 NJ/NY fleche featured sub 25-degree temperatures. Most disconcertingly, a similar cold rain over several days at the 2007 PBP contributed to Shermer's Neck, which forced me out of that ride about 150 miles from the end when I figuratively was in sight of Paris. I was determined to do whatever it took, short of major jeopardy to health and safety, to survive.
People like to speak of the "never say die" attitude of successful randonneurs. While I totally agree that a positive attitude is very important, from my perspective, health and safety eventually weigh in the decision to bail or continue. I promise my wife each time I ride that if it gets really dangerous, I will stop. This rain and cold hadn't reached that health or safety point, I thought, but it was getting there. While I was thoroughly drenched and my toes were aching, it was my fingers where I hurt most. I needed a plan.
I have found that surgical gloves work well, but there were no pharmacies open. Then I remembered speaking with Tom Rosenbauer (of all people) at a gas station at the 2006 NJ 200k just before I DNFed, with him saying how work gloves had helped him. I rolled into a convenience store and, sure enough, a variety of gloves were on sale. One bright blue pair marked "thermal insulation" looked interesting. I bought a pair, put them on, and immediately began feeling warmer. Making a positive move also lifted my mood.
Just before the post card control in Sayre at mile 265 a pair of faster riders caught me from behind. This was another sign, actually, of how improved my riding was on this ride. One of the riders, Geoffrey Hastings of San Francisco was a former racer and obviously talented. The other, Craig Martek was frequently the first finisher on Tom's hilly brevets. To even be in the same time zone with these riders, even if neither of them were feeling very chipper at that moment, made my feel good. The Jimi Hendrix version of Bob Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower" rocked in my brain: "Outside in the cold distance/a wildcat did growl/two riders were approaching (well, three riders, in this case)/and the wind began to howl."
Our trio rode together for most of the day, which included the infamous 14 miles of what Tom euphemistically calls "rollers" right before the control at Canton at mile 344. These are really full-sized hills that just are a little less tall than the other ones. Geoffrey was having major stomach problems, which were affecting his climbing, of which we were doing plenty. Just before the five-mile climb out of Waterville at mile 388, we saw a special control with refreshments, manned by volunteers Kyle Chu and Len Zawodniak. Kyle has his own reputation as a torture course designer, as he is the co-organizer of the "Hillier Than Thou" century in New Jersey. Their hospitality was much appreciated, as was that of the other volunteers.
I found it difficult to hold the pace of Craig and Geoff but perked up for some reason on the Waterville climb. I am a rhythm climber, preferring steady moderate grades over terrain with alternating steeper and flatter sections. But as so often happens in Tom's world of course design, the climbing didn't end at the "top." We simply made a left turn and continued through more "rollers"/aka hills. The cold weather was really starting to affect me, especially when we finally reached the fast descent into Lockport.
I managed to keep Craig and Geoff in sight until the "truck on cheese" sign as the descent began, but watched them bombing into the distance, not to be seen again until the second sleep stop in Lamar. I am not a carefree descender and especially conservative at night. The temperature was in the 40s and the rushing wind chapped the skin on my face and chilled me to the core. It was difficult to grip the brake levers. Finally, I reached the bottom. Before I knew it, I had reached the second sleep stop at Lamar. Ominously, the forecast called for more rain Friday.
Day Three (234 miles) - Downpours and Moonlight
This time I kept my vow, staying in the control for six hours and sleeping for four. In the past, I have averaged about 2 hours of sleep at overnight controls. I noticed a big difference this time on 3 and a half and 4 hours. It seems to help my muscles recover, because I was noticeably stronger than usual on the later days of a multi-day ride.
The much-feared rain began shortly after I left the sleep stop, once again drenching me. Once again, I whipped out the blue thermal gloves, which were becoming my good luck charm. They got wet, but again worked their magic. Dan Clinkinbeard then appeared and we each ate sandwiches at a local market, which were very good. The rain stopped, Dan and I separated and I began climbing alone Route 26/Standing Stone Road at mile 489. This climb was especially steep and unrelenting. Up ahead, a rider was stopped by the side, obviously distressed.
It was Henk Bouhuysen. He said he was having a bout of asthma brought on by the heavy exertion in the cold. Henk and Bill Olsen would both finish, making them by many accounts the first riders to ever complete five 1200's in a single calendar year. Henk looked like he was having trouble continuing. Fortunately, he would recover in time to finish, as did Bill.
This stage, at 234 miles, was the longest and it seemed to go on forever. The undoubted low point of the day, and probably of my entire ride, came in the 30 minutes or so before the controle in Mifflintown at mile 560. The rain clouds opened up, and a torrential rain soaked me completely. Hang in there, I thought, the rain will eventually stop and it will get warmer. That's what I'd heard someone say at one of the controls. We shed some wet jackets at the restaurant at the control and by the time we were ready to go out again, the rain had subsided. Craig had gone ahead, but Geoff and Guy Harris, another New Jersey resident, rode together for most of the night.
As we waited for the frustratingly slow service at the control at the Denny's in Selinsgrove at mile 600, the downpour outside returned. Now we really were in a quandary. The weather was costing us time and now we faced the possibility of a downpour for hours more. We decided to consult a radar map on rider Scott Gator's computer and it showed a nasty band of rain right over our location. But it was moving out fast. Sure enough, the rain subsided again. For a while, Scott and John Fessenden joined us, making a group of five riders gliding through the Pennsylvania night that now was lit by a harvest moon. Best of all, it was in the high 50s. The cavalry, in the form of warm air, had finally arrived. It turned out to be a lovely night, after all.
In the town of Gratz at mile 631, Geoff, Guy and I decided to take a 20-minute nap by the side of a gas station. Shortly after that, we ran into Scott and John again, but somehow I thought Scott was having a mechanical so I waited for him, but he never came and so I rode alone to the third and final sleep stop. By now it was 8:30 in the morning. The overnight control at Pine Grove closed three hours later. I had a choice, sleep for an hour and a half and start around closing time or bank some more time and ride without sleep. Reluctantly, I decided to ride through to the end, hoping I would arrive without too many hours of night riding.
Day Four (116 miles) - Lost Within Earshot of the Finish
I rode along for most of the final day, with everything going reasonably well until it got dark about 7 p.m. I had only 30 miles to go. How bad could it be? It was about three hours to the finish, I figured. But I had by now gone 38 hours without sleep. I was hallucinating, my balance was wobbly and my ability to figure out the cue sheet was dissipating.
Worst of all, Tom had saved some of the worst climbing for last. It felt to me like he had designed the course like a musical score, with the hilly theme stated and developed and then returned with a resounding crescendo in the finale. Why were we continuously going up and down these ridges? Had Tom lost his mind? Was he some kind of mad scientist bent on denying his riders access to the finish?
The final five or six miles was on a dark steep ridge with many confusing and unmarked turns. Though I knew the finish was on I-81 (actually it was I-476, but at least I remembered it was an interstate), which I could hear loudly through the trees, the cue sheet made no sense to my sleep-deprived brain. It was now 10:30. The cutoff was 1 a.m. I still had enough time, but I had probably frittered away an hour or more.
Fortunately, Scott and John appeared just when I needed them most. With the help of his smart phone, Scott figured out the cue sheet, which we thought had a small but significant mileage error (which I later when fully conscious found was not an error at all), and off we sped to the Hampton Inn and salvation. The three of us glided into the lobby, with a throng of volunteers and earlier finishers cheering us on. Our time was 91:21. We later learned that only 22 of the 48 starters finished.
Frankly, I was too tired to even appreciate it properly then. I do now. I am especially grateful to Tom and the volunteers for their work and support. Yes, Tom, I have a few issues with your route decisions, but as you point out, all routes are a compromise of various objectives. This was quite simply the hardest course I have ever completed. And I think I'll give myself another pat on the back for doing that.