Not good. I'm semi-collapsed in the shady backseat of a volunteer's car trying to figure out what's going wrong and how to right it. I'm only five hours into a two day ride, so I shouldn't be tired yet. It's only 9:30 in the morning, so I shouldn't be overheated yet. I'm less than 100km along a fabulous course, so I shouldn't be short of enthusiasm yet. But I seem to be all of those things. Not good.
The Oregon Randonneurs 600km brevet this year followed in the footsteps of John Kramer's famed "Big Lebowski" 600 from 2006 (see Kent Peterson's entertaining write-up here). 380 miles of riding in north central Oregon, hotter and drier than my usual environs, will include many exposed, extended climbs. For 2009, John christened it the Oregon 600 XTR. I'm not sure what XTR means, exactly, but it sinks into my head as "extreme" and I easily conclude that I should skip the event. A winter and spring of a few thousand km of brevets and permanents performs its usual magic trick, however, and any common sense that I might otherwise possess disappears into thin air. A late registration is made, and the next thing I know, I'm heading to the start in The Dalles, Oregon with Bob Brudvik and Erik Andersen, looking nervously at the forecast of hot temperatures along the route.
In addition to the 3 of us, SIR would also be represented by Peter Beeson, Rick Blacker, Bill Gobie, Ron Himschoot, Ole Mikkelsen, Vincent Muoneke, Brian Ohlmeier, Ian Shopland, Geoff Swarts, and Peg Winczewski. Vince Sikorski, a long-time SIR stalwart and multiple PBP finisher since 1995, now lives in OR, so we'll put him on the south-of-the-Columbia team. The proximity of two other outstanding randonneur clubs counts as one of the joys of being a randonneur in Washington . The wealth of offerings from the BC Randonneurs to the north and from the Oregon Randonneurs to the south gives us even more opportunities to ride.
The pre-dawn initial stretch of riding east along the Columbia to the initial information control in Rufus passed quickly and uneventfully. The climb up Scott Canyon spread the riders out - it certainly spread me towards the back. I attributed my rearward drift to the strength of the field; probably correct, but perhaps the flu symptoms that had passed over me earlier in the week were more significant than I had imagined. By the second significant climb - from the John Day River up to Condon - the trouble had started. Although only a 2500ft climb, I suffered early. Although too soon in the ride and too shallow a grade to be justified in doing so, I was off my bike walking due to leg cramps soon after the climb started. I guess climbing up Devil's Butte had appropriately landed my ass in hell. Near the top (and after the back seat incident), Eric Ahlvin had a secret control. I could still fake a smile for Eric's camera, but I was worried.
I would see Eric quite a few times over the rest of the ride. As "sag" for the ride, he'd be at most of the controls, at least for the slower riders. His good cheer, helpful advice, and cold drinks, along with his refusal, even once, to offer me a ride, were invaluable to my progress. A small, but incredible, team of four volunteers kept riders moving and fueled through a difficult and remote course. Eric, David Rowe, Dave Read, and organizer John Kramer share part of the credit with the riders for the low DNF rate on the event.
At Eric's control, I met up with legendary cross-border randonneur Ron Himschoot, honored in Canada and the US alike. With many consecutive weekend rides of 200+ miles under his belt, he was riding slowly but consistently and strongly. A bit later, at about 150km into the ride, we linked up for the remainder of the brevet. Ron's patience, experience, and no-quit attitude filled in perfectly when mine were insufficient.
Luckily for me, the mental low on the way up Devil's Butte would be the worst of the day, though eating and staying cool would prove to be challenges. Hell, I even passed on a milk shake at Condon. My speed was low and my non-riding breaks too frequent. Really nice scenery provided a counterweight. A relatively nice climb to Butte Creek Summit was followed by a great descent to the John Day River and some really nice, relatively flat riding along the river. By the time we reached the control at the Fossil Beds Interpretive Center/Cant Ranch (250km), I guess I actually felt pretty decent. That it was already 8 o'clock and much cooler contributed, no doubt, to this feeling.
The next stretch, a long, long, gradual climb to the Keys Creek Summit was quite pleasant as night fell. From other riders after the ride, I heard that this section had been brutal in the heat of the afternoon. Along with the substantially cooler temperatures, the inability to see the climb ahead contributed to making it go ok. Sounds odd, I suppose, but usually true for me. David Rowe's rest stop at Mitchell awaited, just a screamer of a dark descent away.
As I settled in for an over-long stop, the reality of my brevet pace started to sink into my consciousness. Arriving at the last control before the overnight stop with an hour in the bank (and spending 3/4 of that at the control), meant that I wouldn't be sleeping on this 600km brevet. Although I've often advised riders that it's not necessary to ride straight through a 600km, it would be so for me this time. Ugh.
The highest point of the course and a 2400 foot climb awaited. In the cool of the night, a fairly substantial meal of a sandwich and a cup-o-noodles sat well with me. The climb was slow, but uneventful. As expected, we cruised into the overnight control with no more than about an hour to spare, at 4:30AM, 24 hours from the start. (24 hours for 375km - painfully slow, even by my standards). An inability to eat more than half a small bowl of pasta and a few bits of potato foreshadowed what would be a calorie-deprived second day.
The first 40, mostly downhill, miles of the day were easy enough, although nearly four hours passed including a breakfast attempt at the Madras Safeway. From Warm Springs at 278 miles, however, my ride went from merely ugly to turn-the-other-way-and-cover-the-children's-eyes hideous. Detailing the agony can do no one any good, so suffice it to say that I ruined some spectacular scenery with some ugly riding. Lots of calories exited the same way they entered, but faster. Slow progress on the bike was interrupted by stretches of no progress on the side of the road. Several bags of ice deployed in waterbottles, in fabric around the neck, and in jersey pockets came and went with little discernible effect on my overcooked state. Some occasional cloud cover and a lot of patience and encouragement from Ron kept me going toward a less than triumphant finish with a half-hour or so to spare on the clock.
John supplied pizza and beer at the finish. My favorites. I couldn't look at them. A bag of ice in my jersey and a coke seemed just about right. Maybe not. The ice didn't last long and the soda hit the eject button. Charming. But hey, I finished the ride before it finished me. Barely.