The Devil Made Me Do It. 2004 Mt. Diablo Challenge

An exercise in futility. That’s what I can sum it up as. I had very clear goals for this race. I was going to not only beat my previous year’s time of 1 hour, 9 minutes, but also try to get in the top 125 places that finish in under one hour. After all, what’s 9 minutes? That’s nothing!

Wrong… Not nothing. In 9 minutes, you can drive across the San Mateo bridge. In 9 minutes, you can cook a pound of angel hair pasta to perfection. In 9 minutes, you can sing three karaoke songs about pain and suffering and make a complete fool of yourself. A lot of things can happen in 9 minutes, and I was thinking those minutes would just be swept under a rug and disappear somehow. I figured with the newer, lighter equipment, a new climbing style, and a little bit of willpower to improve, that would be enough to chip away at those 9 minutes and make dreams a reality. Fate had even called out to me because the organizers announced that t-shirts would be given to the first 125 riders who finished in under an hour. How nice it would be for the ego, to join the ranks of the bay area’s best climbers. But reality used to be a friend of mine, and it came to pay me a visit, just like old times.

The equipment I used was all specifically acquired for hillclimbing. Lightweight titanium bicycle frame, wide handlebars for easier breathing, carbon fiber shoes for maximum power transfer, lower gearing to maintain higher rpms and reduce fatigue. To reduce weight, I pulled out my kitchen scale to find the lightest configuration possible. One water bottle instead of two, (even used a slightly smaller water bottle than usual) no pump or spare tire, just a patch kit and one CO2 cartridge. I figured if I flatted during the race, my time would be off, and there was no rush to get going again after that. Every ounce counts!

I had even developed a new climbing style, which I find to be quite effective on intermediate grades. My previous technique is leaning back on the saddle and grabbing the tops of the bars, or standing out of the saddle and pushing with my body weight, which can only be done for short periods of time in alternating fashion. The new method is to lean forward and make a taut frame with my arms while holding the tops of the brake hoods. (see photo) This “rigid frame” acts as an extension of the handlebars to my shoulders and back, allowing me to push with some kind of mystery back muscles. The pedaling motion becomes easy to keep smooth and I can just concentrate on breathing and maintaing my heart rate at a high level. I can sustain this method for about 15 minutes at very close to peak output with very good results. I suppose in retrospect, I never did four continuous 15-minute intervals before, which might explain why my method failed in the end. But it’s still a method I will employ in the future, because it’s a lot of power for 15 minutes.

Training was somewhat informal, but I figured I had enough miles thi sseason that I would only need to do some specialization hillcimbing in the final two weeks before the race. So that’s all I really gave myself. In the final week before the race I did some agressive riding and small hills, and I really felt ready to accomplish my goal.

Race morning comes, and I deliberately parked far away from the starting line, so that I’d have a good warmup in the cold morning air. Mt. Diablo has no flat roads to warmp up on. You start and you’re climbing. So warming up would be fairly important. Many many riders brought wind trainers along with them for this purpose. As I rode towards the start I even saw one guy parallel parked on the one-lane road with his rollers set up in the street alongside his car, and trying to balance on the rollers while leaning against the car. Good idea, but maybe not the safest place to do that. I arrived a bit early and signed in. They gave me a water bottle souvenir, and I didn’t want to carry it in my pocket the whole race (extra weight!) It was a tough tactical decision to risk riding back to the car and getting a flat right before the race, but I figured I could also consume my gel packet at the same time, and get some more warmup in, versus standing around in the start line.

Anxiety got the best of me, and I had a hard time swallowing the whole gel pack. Never try a new flavor when you’re nervous. Clif Shot Vanilla just wasn’t doing it for me and I could only handle half of it. Upon returning to the start line, I realized it was definitely a bad tactical move, because I was stuck at the back of the pack, behind many many people on mountain bikes. Normally I wouldn’t care about such things. But on this ride, especially at the crowded start, it would be that much tougher to weave and pass the slower riders, sapping my energy, concentration and rhythm. A lof ot guys who were late would just walk up the sides of the line and cut in further up, but I didn’t want to be “that guy”. So I took my chances in the back.

The announcer said a lot of things that I couldn’t hear, and blew a big air horn to start the race. Immediately after, a song was being sung over the loudspeaker, something about climbing mountains. It was a “Breaking Away” moment for sure, as everyone in the pack slowly edged ahead across the starting line.

Eight or nine bikes wide, we filled the street, and rode at a snails pace. Normally I would savor being in such a close community of fellow cyclists, but in this case, everyone was in my way. I knew there was little chance of passing in the first half mile, so just tried to keep my distance from the wheel in front of me. Others, with nerves of steel, chose to thread the needles of space between us, silently weaving into voids that didn’t exist. Selfish jerks, I thought. But what can you do, it’s all about the clock.

Once we hit a serious grade (past the speed bump, if you are familiar) most of the casual riders slowed down immediately, causing more of the jerks to make themselves known and jeopardize the safety of the swarm by weaving past. I decided it was time to put on my own jerk hat though, and start my race. I had to get clear of all these snails if I intend to make my time goal, because as the big man Lance Armstrong once wrote, “Every Second Counts”.

The thing about passing in this early stage, is that everyone wants to do it. So if you consider the basic courtesy of passing on the left, multiplied by 8 cyclists wide in a road, you pass on the left, but soon after there is another slower rider in front who slows you down, forcing someone to pass you because you slowed down, and now you have nowhere to go. So I would pick up speed, and have to exponentially accelerate past several people passing each other just to keep finding clear space to settle down into a rhythm. I was being really good at the selfish jerk role, and passed many lost souls. Some not so lost souls, though.

Three miles into it, all the passing was taking it’s toll on me. I could feel my quads talking back to me. It was muscle-language saying “this isn’t rhythm, we protest” and I just ignored the uneasy feeling, chalked it up to cold weather. But I was definitely not in my rhythm. Not breathing well, low, labored heart rate. I couldn’t figure out how to kick start the engine.

By mile 4, it was thinned out enough that passing was easy, so I settled into my rhythm and began riding smarter. I picked a breathing pattern and found a comfortable gear to push, tightened my grip on the bars and brought my heart rate to working speed, about 85% of max. Average speed 9.2mph. Not bad for uphill, but definitely not on pace for the time goal (It would have to be 10.2mph to hit the goal) I figured there was a small break in the middle of the climb where we go downhill and back up, so that’s where I could make up the time. At mile 5, I came arond the corner to a barbershop quartet singing on the side of the road. It was a nice touch. I gave them a thumbs up as I passed, but probably should have saved my energy.

I kept up my pace until mile 8, was still passing some slower riders along the way. But mentally, I was losing my ground. I kept looking at my stopwatch, and looking at my current speed, and looking at how many switchbacks I had to go until the summit. It all just wasn’t adding up to success. I wasn’t going to make the goal. Then I realized that I had no song in my head. I had driven this morning without the radio, and could not focus on a song, a beat, anything except my impending failure. Around the next turn there was a punk band set up with a generator. They were fully plugged in and amped up. They struck up a surf riff as I struggled by. It was a catchy tune, and it became my song for the next mile.

At mile 9, something snapped. At first it was a twinge, and then a spasm in my right calf. The telltale sign of a muscle cramp. Lack of water? lack of electrolytes? lack of training? Who knows… I had only one mile to go, so I tried to push through it. That never works. I eased off my power stroke, but that caused the left leg to work twice as hard. If had I had eased off completely, I’d have rolled backward down the hill. I had to keep pushing to keep moving to keep on keeping on. But the extra load on the left leg quickly made itself known, and within minutes, both legs were cramping up. This had never happened to me climbing up Mt. Diablo. Why now? I had visions of hitting the summit and that 17% grade “The wall” and cramping up right in front of the timing officials, falling over because my legs were too weak to unclip from the pedals. I couldn’t do that to myself. I had to back off.

With about .7 mile to go, I watched my stopwatch hit the one hour mark. Game over. So much for glory. Now it was a matter of just finishing in one piece, without an airlift to the hospital. I shifted down to my lowest gear (34×25) and slowed to about 6 mph… maybe 5. I pedaled with my head down in disgrace, as bike after bike would pass me by on their way to a strong finish. One by one, I saw the same people I had so arrogantly passed just minutes earlier, without even so much a glance. Everyone for themself in this race.

My body language must have said it all, because one guy said to me as he passed “You’re doing great.” and whizzed along. I looked at him and sheepishly replied “thanks. you too.” I don’t know if I was any more inspired by his support, but it was kind of him to offer. I must have been passed by about 20 riders.

By the time I hit the top, and the “wall”, the cramps were gone, but I had no intention of testing my legs. So I babied it all the way up the wall, and got passed by at least 15 other riders. Final time: 1 hour, 11 minutes. I couldn’t even match my best time, I had to do two minutes worse. What a day.

I now have a much deeper appreciation for my first effort last year and my best time up the mountain. In order to really shave a whole 9 minutes off my time next year, I’m going to have to train differently. Work on my leg endurance for a 1 hour, 85% effort, to help avoid the muscle cramping. I don’t think I had any problem aerobically, because I never felt nausea from insufficient oxygen, or CO2 removal. So I believe it was all just lack of leg strength over time. But I still don’t know for sure. I have a whole year to figure it out. Until then, the devil wins this round.