My Death Ride Experience
By Paige Anderson
For some background, the Death Ride is billed as a 129 mile ride that climbs five mountain pass roads for a total of 16,000 feet of climbing. This year they even threw in a sixth pass, for those true masochists, for an extra 22 miles and 1,200 feet of climbing. This event takes place south of Lake Tahoe-off highway 88-close to the California-Nevada border. The start is at Turtle Rock park, close to the little town of Markleeville. The official start time is at 5:30a.m. which is sunrise. The first four passes are closed to cars which is great but it also means ain’t no one going to come and get you. The first pass you climb is the front side of Monitor and at anytime you can turn around and go back to the park and your car. The second pass is the backside of Monitor. So you go down and the only way to get back is to climb. After the second pass is finished you descend back down the front side of Monitor and the third pass is very close to the bottom and that pass is the front side of Ebbetts. Again at anytime you can turn around and go back to the start. The fourth pass is the backside of Ebbetts which like Monitor, once you descend there is no getting back unless you pedal, pedal, pedal. You then descend down the front side of Ebbetts and there is a fairly flat ride back to Turtle Rock park. From Turtle Rock Park you head out to Carson, the fifth pass. It is a good distance away with a slight uphill grade and an ever present headwind. But again on this pass you can turn around at any time and head home. So people have asked me why I wanted to do this and my only answer is that is sounded like fun in February when you have to sign up and I really had no idea of what 16,000 feet of climbing was like but do I ever know now.
Training and Preparation
Before attempting this ride I trained the best I could on the hills around the bay area. I started in late February logging many flat miles to get a base and slowly started doing more hill rides. As I got stronger I rode 3-4 days at lunch and tried to get at least one good hill ride in such at Old La Honda or Page Mill. On the weekends I would do a long ride usually on Sunday-this included three centuries and many miles to the coast and back and up and down the hills around Skyline-many of these rides were with my faithful riding buddy Willis. Actually I had many people, friends and co-workers, who rode with me and kept me honest and inspired me. I talked to everyone I could who had any experience with the ride to try and be ready for it. This was actually an amazingly useful exercise-I learned a lot of things that made my Death Ride if not more enjoyable at least survivable. I drove up to Tahoe with my husband Dave, who was not sure if he was going to attempt part of the ride or not. We went on Thursday to acclimate to the altitude which I know is a problem for me. Even though Tahoe is not that high I always get a headache the day after I arrive. I also wanted to get the lay of the land before the ride to try and calm the butterflies in my stomach. That night we set up camp at a campground close to the start of the ride and we brought along our very big and comfy air mattresses, real sheets and even a down comforter. We had a nice dinner and the carbo loading had officially begun. On Friday we checked out the start of the ride at Turtle Rock. We parked our car in the lot with lots of other eager cyclists and did a small bike ride just to limber up our legs-I was huffing and puffing on a very small hill thinking why did I agree to do this? There is no air here. Can I still back out? But it was very cool to see all these cyclists driving and walking around with their funny tan lines.
Now for some more background. I work for Agilent Technologies which is a spin off of HP (Hewlett/Packard). The son, Walter Hewlett, of one of the founders of HP is a big cyclist and every year he hosts dinners at his Tahoe estate, right on the lake, for Agilent & HP Death Riders. This is an amazing event. Everyone pitches in to prepare meals and clean up afterwards. Everyone gets a jersey which we wear for the ride which is great because even though you don’t know everyone it makes you feel like you are not alone out there when you see a familiar jersey. The night before the ride is a huge pasta feed and everyone recounts their previous Death Ride exploits. I kept trying not to get nervous as I listened to all these people who seemed so much stronger than me say how challenging the ride was. But then I told myself even though it was called the Death Ride the chances of actually dieing were remote at best. Even the woman who hit a cow head on in a previous ride survived to do the ride another day-although her bike did not. The worst thing that could happen would be that I could not finish even one pass-ignoble no doubt but I have lived down more humiliating moments which I will not elaborate on. Walter Hewlett gave a speech after dinner which truly was an inspiration to me and which I thought of often at the moments during the ride when I really wanted to quit. He spoke of reaching deep down in yourself to find something that you did not know was there and pushing yourself beyond what you thought you could do and for me the Death Ride proved to be much more of a psychological challenge than a physical test and those words really kept me going. On a fun aside, Agilent and HP are overrun with engineering types and they rigged up a full size skeleton, named Miss Bones, on the back of a tandem bike and even had it so it looked like she was pedaling. The bike and skeleton weighed 80 pounds which is extremely heavy for a bike but six riders took turns making sure that she made it up all five passes.
The night before
After the big pasta dinner Dave and I drove back to our campsite and I got ready for the big day. Dave had officially decided to be a spectator and not a participant this time around. I wanted to be in bed by 8:00 because I decided that I needed to be up by 4:15am to be at the start by 5:30. However, what I wanted to do and what actually happened were two different things. I was very nervous as I prepared everything for the ride. I decided to use a camelback to be able to carry everything I might need on the road. I think it was the right decision even though I could have gotten by without it. Finally at about 10:00 I was ready for bed, I took my shot of NyQuil and crawled into bed and proceeded to stare at the top of the tent for what seemed like hours. However, I must have fallen asleep at some point because I woke up at ~2:00 in the morning on the ground-all the air had leaked out of my mattress. Too tired to do anything about it-I rolled around on the ground trying to relieve the pressure on my hips & shoulders for the next couple hours. Finally it was 4:15 and it was time to rise and shine-the first part I did successfully but I can’t really say that I shined at that hour. In the night, my co-worker Nick Sampas had joined our little party and was camped out under the stars in his sleeping bag. With only a small amount of grumbling we got dressed, ate some food and had some coffee. We packed up the car and drove off towards the start. On the way we passed a few groups of cyclists that were biking, in the dark with their headlamps, to the start-it made for a very surreal picture. About half way to the start I realized that my front tire was not in the car. Dave had taken it out and it had not gotten back in and since it was so dark I had not noticed. So we had to turn around and retrieve it-me getting more nervous every minute. We still managed to make it to the start and be on our bikes by 5:30a.m.
And so the ride began at 5,500 feet with Nick and me heading off into the cold morning air with Dave waving us on. This was one of the highlights of the ride-there were cyclists everywhere and everyone was in high spirits. The air was crisp and the sun was just starting to come up over the horizon. We cycled about 5-7 miles, a nice warm-up through the town of Markleeville, to a checkpoint where they made sure everyone had a number and was registered and after that the climbing began. Also this was the point that the road for the next four passes was closed to cars. The first ascent was up Monitor pass and it was a nice grade-I believe the climb was about 8 miles. It was just amazing how many other cyclists were on the road-all of a sudden I was not feeling too crazy and a little confident that maybe I could do this after all-I mean if it was really that hard would all these people be here? Nick and I stayed together for the first climb but I could tell he was anxious to go faster but I really wanted to keep my pace slow and steady to be sure I could finish. Although the ride is not a race you still have to be at the checkpoints by a certain time or they will not allow you to continue. This is for the riders safety although with a name like The Death Ride you would have thought that anything goes. So my goal was to go slow enough to have something left at the end but fast enough to make the checkpoint times. It was really hard for me to keep my speed slow. Monitor was a beautiful pass-very exposed but that didn’t keep members of the male gender from relieving themselves on the roadside-trees are not necessary for this purpose so I found out. At the top, 8,314 feet, there was a rest stop and it was chaos. You have to stop and get a sticker at each pass to prove you were there. So people were trying to get stickers, others were trying to get off their bikes, others were trying to get on their bikes to start again-it was madness. I stopped for a quick pit stop and tried to eat some food. It was really hard to swallow anything-it was so dry. I should mention that the best thing I did was bring along a special powered food designed for these sort of endurance events which has a lot of calories and you just mix it in your water bottle. I drank one of these every hour religiously and I was never hungry. However, I did also eat real food at the rest stops but I really did have a hard time with the dry food-I chewed and chewed and chewed but it never got to the consistency of something I wanted to swallow-not sure why. Fruit was ok.
Feeling good I got back on my bike and descended down the backside of Monitor. The scenery was other worldly-it looked like I was on the moon but without the benefit of the no gravity thing. The ride down was fun, fun, fun. Some of the riders were flying! They went by me so fast they sounded like cars. Got sticker number 2 at the bottom and decided to forgo the rest stop and started climbing again. This is where the mind games kick in because you are on the other side of the mountain and the only way to get out of there is to climb back up to the top. There are no SAG wagons-only ambulances. This climb up the backside of Monitor seemed very, very long (probably about 10miles) but the grade was very consistent and it was easy to maintain a nice spin all the way up. About half way up there are these young guys who will grab your water bottle fill it and bring it to you without you ever having to get off your bike-it’s a very cool tradition. Getting closer to the top I really started enjoying the view and at one switchback you can look down and see where you started and believe me when I say that the people at the bottom looked like tiny little ants-not the big black carpenter ones but the little itty bitty red ones. At the top I was starting to feel a little tired probably more from the lack of sleep and the affect of the altitude than the physical exertion itself. I took a short rest at the top-I was way ahead of any cutoff times so no need to hurry. It was finally warm enough to shed my leg warmers but I kept the arm warmers on for the descent. The descent down the front side of Monitor was fun but I was a bit tired so I took it easy. I found a guy who was going a good pace and just hung out behind him for most of the way down.
The next climb, pass #3, was the front side of Ebbetts-the climb started very close to where the descent just ended. The scenery was more what you would expect in the Sierra-very wooded with big trees everywhere with no sweeping views like I got on Monitor. This climb was tough for me. It started out at a reasonable grade but as I got closer to the top there would be sections that were much steeper and I would have to stand up-it was a very inconsistent grade. Again I was keeping my pace very slow and did all my climbing in my two easiest gears. The fact that I was still passing more people than were passing me did not help my psyche-I was feeling very spent. It was weird because I know on my training rides I routinely did climbs that had pitches that were much steeper than those on this road but my butt was getting kicked. Finally the top appeared, 8,730 feet, and an amazing feeling of relief washed over me. Volunteers hand out Twizzlers as you ride by but I was too tired to even reach out and take one. Some of the volunteers at the top wear angel wings because you are so high-very cute. This is where I had my near death experience when I could not get out of my pedals. I think the dust had jammed my cleats and I was yelling “I can’t get out, I can’t get out” and luckily a kind hearted volunteer grabbed me and kept me from crashing to the ground. The top is very congested with just a small area of land on either side of the road-bikes and people took up every available space. I hung out for a while wondering if my Death Ride experience was done with just 3 passes over-I was that tired-it would have been so easy to just ride down the hill and head back to Turtle Rock. But I decided that I should at least do the fourth pass, the backside of Ebbetts, since it was there and it was not as long, being only 6 miles, as the front side had been so down the backside I went grimacing all the way and let me tell you it was not a fun descent. The road was full of nasty little heaves caused by tree roots that you could not see until you were airborn. After my bike left the pavement the first time I took it slow. I believe one guy was taken out by ambulance because of this but he appeared to be ok. At the bottom, named Hermit Valley, I hung out briefly at the rest stop but knowing that I had to climb back out of the hole I decided not to linger so up I went to conquer pass #4.
Pass #4 was by far the hardest psychologically. It was the shortest pass distance wise (only 6 miles) so I did not expect it to take such a toll. The road was a fairly consistent grade, like the two sides of Monitor had been but it was steeper and there just never seemed to be a break where I could catch my breath. Also the road was getting a lot of sun and there was no breeze so it was the hottest pass of the day. At one point, okay maybe two, I thought to myself “I’m just going to stop here and sit on the side of the road until they open the roads and eventually Dave will come and find me with the car.” I had to stop for a rest in the shade of a tree and have a Goo but then I slogged on. Also my bike computer decided to stop working at about mile 26.8 of the ride so I had no idea how long this hell was going to continue until I reached the top. Just when I thought I was going to have to stop again for another rest the top came into view and it was a sweet, sweet site! I dismounted and thought that’s it no more passes for me I am going back to the car and it felt like a weight being lifted off my shoulders. I hung out and took in the spectacle at the rest stop. There were all sorts of bikers and bikes there. I then stood up, dusted off my shorts and decided to get a move on-back to the car and a nice cold beer. The descent down Ebbetts was really fun, and it was looooong and smooth, and it is so nice knowing that you don’t have to worry about cars but you do have to be careful of cyclists on their way up. Although I did pass an ambulance packing up a guy on a stretcher-he was on a backboard but he was still conscious so I took that as a good thing. At the bottom of the downhill run there was a lunch stop at Centerville Flat but the line was so long I just drank some more of my liquid fuel and ate a cliff bar-nice and relaxing. This was my longest break so far-I probably hung out for at least 30 minutes and it felt great. However, I did see some casualties-one guy with shorts and arm ripped to bits and another with a wheel so bent out of true it was not rideable and another guy being taken down on a motorcycle with his bicycle slung over his shoulder.
I got back on my bike to head back to Turtle Rock and I was feeling pretty good that I had managed to do four of the passes with no major problems. I thought that was pretty good for my first time out. However, the ride back to Turtle Rock was no picnic. It was a 10 mile slog with just enough of an incline that made it feel harder than I thought it should be and there was a definite head wind. I thought drafting would be a smart move but the people I could catch up with were too slow and it took too much concentration not to run into their back wheel so I would end up passing them to face the wind on my own. Other faster groups would go by but they would be moving so fast I couldn’t hang on to their pace lines for long. So let’s just say when I pulled into the parking lot at Turtle Rock after going about 90miles at this point I was feeling a little beat up. And let me also say that I found a little piece of heaven in a most unlikely place-the porta potty. It felt SO good to just sit there. I eventually managed to leave my little paradise and I ran into a co-worker who had finished after 3 passes and then along came my spouse Dave. At this point I was starting to feel better and I let them talk me into trying to do the 5th pass. I was also thinking that there was no way in hell I was ever coming back here so I better just do it all now and get it over with.
So back on my bike I climbed and headed out to Carson pass. I was actually feeling pretty good at this point and it helped that the next rest stop was only four miles away-which I stopped at of course. From this point on Dave became my personal support person. He would drive to the next rest stop and wait for me so there was always a friendly face to look forward to. I later found out that this kind of thing is not encouraged because they want to keep the number of cars on the road for the last pass to a minimum but I have to admit it really helped me a lot to have him close by. I would say there was about 7 miles of slight incline again with the head wind to get to where the real climbing up Carson began. There were still lots of bikers on the road so I was never alone. I was feeling fairly good at this point and managed to keep up a pretty good pace. However, it is a game of survival at this point-people have their heads down grinding away and you don’t hear any idle chit chat. You can just tell that people are doing whatever it takes to get them to the end of the ride. At the last rest stop I meet up with some Agilent/HP people and we swapped stories and complained about our sore butts and other body parts (my triceps were kiliing me). After the rest stop the real final climb started. The bottom 2/3rds of Carson (~4 miles) felt like the easiest pass grade wise but then the top third (~2 miles) got steeper. It was one of those wide open roads so you could look up and see where you had to go and it looked so far-I had to stop at one point to do a mental sanity check. When I finally got to the top (mile 108 & 8,585 feet) I was ESTATIC. I felt like the queen of the world. I can’t even describe the feeling of accomplishment and relief all rolled into one. I got my last sticker and hung out for a while to bask in the sun and then I got back on my bike for the long downhill home and what a downhill it was. That is it was great until I got to our campground. I was ready to head to the showers and skip the last 6-7 miles to get back to Turtle Rock but Dave was there waiting for me and he would not let me stop there, he made me go all the way back to Turtle Rock. And let me say that there is a little hill that you have to climb before the park entrance, which I had already done that morning because we had to park at the bottom of it, and I had to do it again-it was literally torture. I was thinking of ways to get back at Dave the entire climb. I pulled into Turtle Rock at ~6:00p.m. just 12 _ hours after starting. In the end it was good that I did the ENTIRE thing-all 129 miles.
So we headed back to the campsite and I had one of the best showers of my life. We packed up and headed to the Hewlett estate for a wonderful barbeque and talk of the ride. It was a great way to end a truly amazing day.
Postscript: I do want to add a couple things to the story.
1) The volunteers that work this event are truly wonderful. This event was so well supported and organized it was nothing short of amazing. Unfortunately I think most of the riders are so focused and tired that they never let these people know how wonderful they really are.
2) I was extremely lucky that my first and maybe last attempt at this ride had perfect weather. It was sunny but not hot and the head winds were totally manageable. I think this is one reason why a record number of people finished all five passes this year-including me. It can be unbearably hot or it can rain and be cold-you just never know what the mountains are going to do on any given day.
3) I want to say that I could not have done this alone-I thank everyone who rode with me while I was training no matter the distance-every mile helped. Every mile I rode with someone was a mile that was more fun than riding alone and so it kept me motivated and feeling good.
4) Anyone who enjoys biking and a challenge should try this. You don’t have to do all the passes. Just being up there with all those riders is inspiring and fun. I think about 2,800 riders started the ride and about 1,700 did all five passes and ~160 did the additional sixth pass. Many of these people are repeat offenders and most people don’t stop at just one time. And if you’re not a biker, they always need volunteers.