Hillier Than Thou 2010: I’m Too Old For This

The vicious 25 percent section of Fiddlers Elbow Road, originally uploaded by Shane Beake.

This year on Hillier Than Thou, just before the right turn onto Iron Bridge Road at about mile 80, there was a wonderfully seductive word painted on the road in large letters:


For a split second, I thought about it.

I knew the last 20 miles contained six of the race’s 13 major climbs.  But somehow I soldiered on.  Perhaps I was too embarrassed with fellow randonneur Jon. C. a few feet behind me.  Jon, who has about a year of randonneuring experience and was doing his first Hillier event, looked very strong and steady throughout the day.  That is saying something, because Hillier makes it very hard for anyone to look strong and steady.

Jon and I, in fact, rode together for at least sections of all of the first 9 climbs.  We had started with a group of more than 100 racers at Camp Bernie about twenty minutes after eight Sunday morning.  It was the first time I’d ever shared so much of the Hillier course with the same person.  On those repeated steep climbs, it’s hard to keep a group together.

This was my ninth straight Hillier Than Thou race.  My basic goal every year is to finish within the official 8-hour time limit.  The first year I raced, 2002, heavy rain convinced me to bail at mile 40.  For for the past eight years, however, I have made the deadline.  Of my eight finishes, three have been under 7 hours.  My best ever was 6:33 in 2008.  This year I clocked a somewhat disappointing 7:22.  I say disappointing, because some of my training numbers were at all-time highs this week.  More about that in a later post.

There were many randonneurs in this year’s Hillier starting field, more than I can remember seeing before.  Beside Jon and me, there were two first timers, Roy Y. and Mendy L., who had driven up with me for the hour ride to the start.  There was also Shane B., who had finished so impressively on his first try last year at 6:53.  Walter P. drove up from South Jersey to compete again in the over 55 group, which he won in 2008.  Then there was Ray E., who broke the 8-hour barrier last year.  Everyone was a little nervous, especially the first timers.  They had good reason to be nervous.  This event challenges everyone.

We started the race as always in a big pack on a 4-mile leadout to the foot of the first big climb, where the timed section officially begins.  This year, as in recent events, it was Stephensburg Road.  For the first five minutes, my power was 294w, a typically aggressive start for me.  I finished the climb at 277 watts for just over 10 minutes, which was relatively fast compared with previous years.

Jon. passed me almost immediately at the top of the climb, but I slowly caught up and we more or less rode with a loose pack of riders until about mile 20 during the descent of Buttermilk Bridge Road, Big Climb No. 2, where I backed off the pace.  I knew the road had been repaved, but it still looked a little rough.  I saw a rider holding his hand on the side of the road about halfway down.  I later learned he’d broken a finger.

I got to the first of the four checkpoints at mile 23 and left with Jon.  He then dropped me on the lower slopes of Coleman Hill Road, Climb No. 3, the first of the race’s three ascents of the Fiddlers Elbow Ridge.  He was out of sight by the top, then came a long downhill section into Belvidere.  Just before the bridge across the Delaware into PA, I caught up with him again and we rode north through rolling terrain along the river for several miles. Shortly before the start of Climb No. 4, Belvidere Corner Road, Shane caught up to us.

We only rode with Shane until the checkpoint at the top of the climb.  I left first, followed by Jon., who caught up to me again by the second Delaware River crossing back into New Jersey.  Now for the big event of the day, Climb No. 5 Fiddlers Elbow Road, at about the halfway mark.  My plan is always the same.  I swallow my pride at the very top 25-percent section and walk my bike.  When I did so, Jon gamely passed me but finally he, too, succumbed and dismounted.

Jon and I stayed roughly within sight of each other for Climb Nos. 6 (Wester Rd/Fox Farm Rd), 7 Church St./Rt. 579),  and 8 (Iron Bridge Rd).  I dropped my chain at especially bad moments during steep sections of Wester and Iron Bridge, which didn’t help my mood.  Jon and I were still together at about mile 90, at the foot of Buffalo Hollow/Observatory Rd, which was climb No. 9.  At that point, Jon disappeared ahead of me for good and I did the final three climbs (Herman Thau, Cokesbury, Longview and Sliker), mostly alone.  My legs were screaming at me to stop and I made the vow I always make late in the ride:

Never again

This was suffering for a high level even for Hillier.  It turns out that the timed course was 100.8 miles, according to my power meter.  This was about eight miles longer than last year’s course.  The winning time of 5:52 was also 36 minutes slower than last year’s time.  I estimate roughly that the longer and more difficult course probably added 40 minutes to my time and the times of most of my fellow randonneurs.  So this was an especially difficult version of Hillier, as if it weren’t especially difficult enough.

Here are my power numbers (actual and normalized) since 2006:

2006 169/205, finished in 7:12 (104-mile course)

2007 161/199, finished in 7:24 (99-mile course)

2008 172/213 finished in 6:33 (91-mile course)

2009 157/190, finished in 7:06 (93-mile course)

2010 166/204, finished in 7:22 (101-mile course)

The best measure of a long hilly ride is normalized power over time.  Distance is skewed because a century with 10,000 feet of climbing takes a lot longer than a flat century.  For the slightly more than seven hours of actual riding, my normalized power of 204 watts was just a watt or two off my best wattage ever for that time, which was in the 2006 PA 200k.  So it wasn’t a personal best or breakthrough performance, just a very good one for me.

Jon, Roy and Mendy all had terrific debuts.  Jon finished at 7:18 and he looked to me nearly as fresh at the finish as he did at the start.  Roy and Mendy had some uncertain moments near the end, in terms of time, but finished in 7:52, with eight minutes to spare.  That is quite an accomplishment, especially on this year’s course.

Shane wasn’t so lucky.  He got very sick shortly after he caught up with us at mile 40 and struggled to complete the course, finally crossing the line in 8:14.  Somehow, he managed to chronicle his suffering in photos, which as always, are outstanding: http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/sets/72157624995517350/

Now a couple of days have passed.  Kyle Chu, the organizer, is promising a “much easier course” for Hillier in 2011.  Of course, he said this year’s course would be easy too, which proves how little you should trust a ride organizer when it comes to difficulty of the ride.  But maybe, just maybe, I’ll enter Hillier again.  After all, that would make it an even 10 years in a row.


WEEK 13 hrs 44 min

GOAL 14 hrs

I have now completed my two big events, Quadzilla and Hillier.  I will probably ride one more century (the Pumpkin Patch) and another PA 200k over the next few weeks and that will be it for endurance riding for 2010.

3 comments to Hillier Than Thou 2010: I’m Too Old For This

  1. Roy
    September 21st, 2010 at 6:43 am

    Hillier was a revelation. It’s the first ride I have done in which I was unable to tax my aerobic capacity. After the first two or three climbs, I breathed easily the rest of the day because I was too tired to pedal faster. I see two possibilities: (1) my power-to-weight is just too low and my muscles were just worn out (2) I’m used to rides with 3000-5000 feet of climbing mostly with grades under 10 percent. I think (1) means I ought to lose 10 percent of my weight (which I can afford, unlike most of your readership) while (2) suggests I need to train with more rides just like Hillier.

    I suppose I ought to do both, but I know there is a good chance I will do neither.

  2. jud
    September 21st, 2010 at 7:02 am


    Just finishing Hillier in under 8 hours, especially this year, is saying a lot. Congratulations to Mende and you for persevering.

    BTW, the power distribution I got shows how hard we were working:
    I spent 24.6 percent of Sunday’s ride in my red zone, which is threshold, VO2 max or anerobic capacity levels (228 watts and above). I spent only 34.3 percent of my time in the recovery zone (0 to 139 watts), which is light or no pedaling. I spent only 23.4 percent of my time in the aerobic zone (140-189 watts), which is normally my long-distance zone. The remaining time was spent in the tempo zone (190-227 pace), which would be pushing the pace on a flat ride.
    Compare that with the 13.1 percent in the red zone, 60.1 in the recovery zone and 17.1 for the aerobic zone for the Bear Mountain 200k on July 18th, where you and I obviously took it at a sub-aerobic pace most of the time.

  3. Shane
    September 21st, 2010 at 7:18 am


    Excellent write up as usual, I do have to laugh at Kyle’s advertising that this year would
    be “a much easier course”, my body certainly didn’t tell me that. I too thought throughout
    the course that I’d never do this again, but it’s only 2 days after the event and I’m already
    thinking about next year, how quickly the pain fades.

    As far as you Jud I think you have a LEAST another 10 years of Hillier in you, so buckle up
    for the ride (you know it’s coming)


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