Santiago Cycling's Breathless Agony is an amazing ride. There are 4 mountain "passes" in 114 miles. In the first 74 miles to the top of Onyx Summit, there is close to 11,000 feet of climbing. Not a race, but a challenge, the event does track your time with the course record of 4:37 to the top at mile 74) set a few years back. All riders must be at the top by 3:30pm to get credit for finishing. This was the hardest century I have done since 1988. I would get to the top at exactly 3:30pm, giving me 8:54 total time (riding and resting).
This was event #2 of the 3 rides making up the King of the Mountains Challenge. I am riding this challenge in preparation for my 3rd attempt at the Assault on Mt. Mitchell in South Carolina. All four rides have 10,000+ feet of climbing in them and 100 miles. This thread chronicles my progress toward this goal.
Too often today, we're inundated with marketing hyperbole and subjected to claims that over-promise and under-deliver, making us hard and indifferent to valid claims. In this case, Santiago Cycling gave us exactly what they said they would: a breathless agony
cycling event. Agony is self-explanatory as one look at the elevation profile reveals. The breathless part, now that's where I was impressed. It was breathless in (at least) two ways. First, the views from the mountain passes were amazing--truly breath-taking. But second--and more importantly--the second half of the event was all at altitude (the dotted horizontal line and yellow ball is at 5,000 foot elevation) and there was little oxygen to be had, giving rise to a very literal and physical interpretation of "breathless". I, and most others I ended up riding with, were gasping for air all day. On at least two occasions, I saw individuals pull over to the side of the road where they vomited due to constant hyper-ventilating (upsetting the stomach).
I thought I was coming into this in good shape. I had recently completed the Mulholland Challenge and this week rode some hills on Wednesday and felt good, speeding up them faster and and in a larger gear than ever before. Thursday, I had gotten some speedwork in at the Rose Bowl's training race (yes, that Rose Bowl), and Friday I had taken an easy day in preparation, still feeling strong. My only concern was my sleep. This week I had gone back to work from vacation. Teaching is nothing if not tiring. I had only been getting 6-1/2 to 7 hours of sleep all week. I can usually handle that, but after about a week, I need a good 8+ hours to recover. I hadn't had that 8+ hours yet. So I came in under-rested. I am positive this contributed to the hyper-ventilation going up to Onyx Summit as I have experienced this same condition and symptom before. A minor inconvenience: I did not get time to clean & lube my bike on Friday night: my 9-yr old had a music concert I had to go to instead. As a result, my chain would end-up squeaking at me and everyone else the last 50 miles (apologies to all).
Jack Rabbit Trail was pretty neat. Very rough surface that can mess up your wheels if you're not careful. But, a narrow farm-track of a road that winds up through some lovely cattle-grazing fields. Very nice. And the gradient wasn't bad at all. I had no trouble going up and even pulled away from the group I was with. This lulled me into a false sense of security for the climbs to come.
I fixed up a flat tire just after rest stop #1, but never did find what caused it. I hopped back on my bike and trudged up Oak Glen. The overall gradient wasn't too bad, although it was more of a stair-step climb: steep in pitches and easier in others. I could've done without the steep ones. While they weren't too steep (max of 12%), it was a long climb: 6-1/2 miles at average 6% grade. The (in)famous Grim Reaper would make an appearance on one of the long steep sections, obviously enjoying himself way too much. Finally over the top, I zoomed down the other side into Rest Stop #2. Afraid of breaking a spoke on any of the rough cracks in the road (I was riding my lighter, performance
wheels due to another issue), I descended tentatively where I was unsure of the surface.
Out of this stop, we immediately start ascending State Highway 38, in a section affectionately called "Damnation Alley". Mostly, I gather, this is because of the heat. Today, however, was almost a perfect day, weather-wise. It was not too hot, or at least didn't feel like it. I do remember sweating buckets as great drops would roll down my nose and cheeks, but I never over-heated. Damnation Alley is another long-ish ascent: 6+ miles, but not overly steep at 5.6% average with a maximum of 9.5%. I was doing well, averaging close to 7mph up the climb. I did stop once or twice and put a foot down to catch my breath and stretch my back. At the conclusion of the day, I could say I rode the entire way, never once walking.
At the end of Damnation Alley, the road makes a wide S-turn into the final, 5-mile push up to Angelus Oaks. This part wasn't too bad with my Garmin showing an average of 5% (max of 13%), but beginning with Damnation Alley, it was 11 miles of non-stop climbing. I was definitely feeling it at this point, and about 1/2 way up, I crossed 5,000 feet elevation and started feeling the low oxygen levels. We topped out at a little restaurant at about 5,700 feet.
I stayed at this rest stop a long time (about 20-minutes), my legs definitely feeling tired, and my lungs coughing pretty good. From here, it only got worse. One of the volunteers comes through, stating "15 minutes" 'til the stop closes and we have
to be on our way to the top. So, I slowly mount up. The description of the coming miles is actually encouraging, depending on who you ask. The "15 minutes to go" volunteer describes it as: "10 miles of rolling terrain with a gradual ascent. Then a 1-mile long downhill, followed by the 80-mile climb to the finish." He was pretty much spot on, which was good because I had thought it was a steady 20-mile climb to the finish. Fortunately, not. There were plenty of spots of flat to easy terrain to recuperate on.
The slog up those last 8-miles...I don't know how to describe them. Part of me doesn't remember. The sustained oxygen debt I was in at this point had me weaving around the road at times, dizzy and light-headed. I did okay the first 2-3 miles, but then struggled the rest of the way with a woman and 2-men friends shepherding her to the top. She called out to me as I followed her wheel, "You can come around." "No...I can't," I reply. "This is a good pace." We trade pulls for awhile, straining for sight of the finish.
Halfway up, I look at my computer: 5 miles to go, 5 mph. Amazing. Aside from the lack of oxygen, this was the most depressing part of the ride: working so hard and putting out so much energy, yet only going 5mph and playing with 4mph. During this torture, I had to stop about every 3/4-miles. I just couldn't breathe. I was only getting quick, short, shallow breaths of air, and needed to calm them down. My legs were tired, but holding in there. They wanted to go faster, they just couldn't without the oxygen.
At about 2 miles to go, I stopped at a SAG car, had a granola bar, water, and as much oxygen I could squeeze out of the air. One final push, with a brief foot-down at about a mile to go. I catch another rider I had been playing tag with. Riders coming down tell us it's just around the corner (how many times have I heard that before?
). The rider I'm with surges a bit and drops me with 150 meters to go. Where'd he get that energy? I try to up my pace a bit...nope.
I roll across the line (using "roll" very loosely here
) and stop. Put my chest on my bars, head down, panting, trying to breathe. Someone asks me my name ("I don't know"), someone else puts a medal in my hand, and I find a blue blanket to sit on. I try laying down, but my lungs can't handle the change in orientation. I cough as I sit back up. I take off my shoes (best thing so far) and struggle to get water and food as the volunteers work around me, closing up shop: it's now 3:30pm. I take about 20-25 minutes to recover. I know I still have a 40-mile descent back to the start/finish line and a little climb back up the 1-mile descent and a few of the rollers. Those could hurt.
Needless to say, I made it back in one piece, thoroughly enjoying the long descent with mostly straight roads and a few wide corners. With a stiff headwind, I averaged 26mph over those last 40 miles. Alot of fun. As I descended, I definitely noticed it getting easier to breathe, and I was almost back to normal at the finish.
Well, I'll cut it off, now, as this is definitely long (I get this way on epic rides). I'd recommend to anyone to try BA in the future. Just make sure you're in shape. I thought I was, but the altitude killed me.
Good time. Don't know if I'll willingly suffer this much in the future, though.
Climbing Jack Rabbit Trail...
And descending Jack Rabbit Trail. Notice the bad road surface...
Climbing up Oak Glen, the Grim Reaper...
The entrance to Damnation Alley...
Climbing the rollers on the way to Onyx Summit...
More of the rollers...
And the summit...