2005 Mt. Diablo Challenge – Chapter 4

No Pain, No Gain
– by Willis W.

This was my third year into this race, and perhaps best chance at finishing in under one hour. armed with the knowledge gained from previous attempts, and a whole new training discipline, the odds were in my favor to meet my long-sought-after goal.

Upon analyzing my previous race attempts, I typically would ride too hard in the first half of the mountain, passing slower riders, expending a lot of energy, and then having nothing left for the top half, which is considerably steeper in grade, and generally toughter. This type of burnout technique never felt good to me, and last year even gave me leg cramps, which is the worst feeling of failure. I was not going to let that happen again.

How to prevent leg cramping.
1) Not to go too hard in the first half, where it is less steep, instead conserve energy, necessary for the second half.
2) Hydration – Maintain a regular drinking frequency, all the way to the top. With one full bottle of water at the bottom, I should drink water often enough to completely empty the bottle by the time I reach the top.
3) Take supplemental electrolytes before, and during the race. Also to prevent cramping and bonking.

Pull out the scale
Instead of trying to save every ounce of weight this year, I decided there were going to be some things I needed to carry for my own mental sanity. I carried a spare tube, tire levers, patch kit, pump. Even though this adds about a pound of weight, I could never feel truly comfortable riding without these essentials. And pre-race anxiety is bad enough worrying about performance, why add the fear of a flat? This feeling of security was especially important since my plan this year was to ride a longer warmup than in the past. And if I would have flatted during the warmup, that would have decreased my chances of even starting the race on time, if I had no tools to fix a flat.

If you have been following the blog so far, you know I have been experimenting with the Cambiatta data logger. By recording speed, cadence, and heart rate information over time, I figured it would be nice to keep a record of how my body reacted to the strain of the race. If I was triumphant, the data graph would serve as a trophy. If I failed, then it would show where things went wrong. Either way, I was looking forward to having some data to show for this ride. In the weeks before the race, I struggled to get the system to work right, because it’s a very picky device. But I knew it would be worth the effort in the end, because even though I know how I’m riding, afterwords the numbers won’t lie. The extra weight of these electronics I deemed as a fair trade for the data. To further enhance the experience (or complicate) I used a polar heart rate monitor (thanks, Kevin) instead of my usual Timex brand, which I had lost just a week prior. The Polar has a little more confusing of an interface, but I read the manual and got it to work properly (or so I thought).

Race Morning
Having the luxury of staying at my parents’ house the night before, we were able to shorten our travel time considerably before the race. Jeff and I rode straight down the hill from my parents’ house, following Alicia in the car. The plan was to leave the car somewhere in the neighborhood that was at the bottom of the hill, because we would probably not want to ride back up it at the end of the day. Alicia rode in with us the rest of the way, and we had somehow missed Don at the meeting point. I was sure we would see him along Diablo road, on the way to the race, though. We got to the start, said goodbye to Alicia, and while Jeff hit the porta-potties, I went back out on Diablo road to look for Don, and keep warming up.

The problem with this race is that there is a long line of riders at the starting line, and the later you get there, the farther back in line you start. This has multiple effects on your race, becasue once the gun fires, the clock is ticking, and it may take a few minutes to even pass the start line. There is no accounting for this lost time, so you either lose the time, or get in line really early and wait there. The disadvantage to this is standing in the cold morning air does no good for your muscles when you are about to do a 100% effort right out of the blocks. So it was my decision to ride up and down Diablo Road to stay warm and loose, while sacrificing time and position in line, but also to try and find Don. I went up and down for several miles looking for Don, but to no avail. So when I got back to the start, Jeff and I got in line about 40 minutes prior to start, and we were about 200 meters from the start, so that was a decent position.

The Start
40 cooling minutes later, the starting horn went off (no guns are allowed in the park) and almost instantly, we were rolling. The announcer was singing his usual “Ride Mt. DIablo…” song and for a brief moment, I felt like a very important person, off to do a very important job. It was the fastest start I’d been in yet. Nobody was blocking me, and I actually let a gap open up in front of me in the first section, which is rough and a steep turning downhill. The gap was good, because someone yelled out “bottle!” and I had time to swerve around someone’s dropped water bottle. After about 2 minutes I had already lost Jeff in the crowd, and then we started to climb. I couldn’t get over how smooth that start went. I usually get so frustrated in the first part, this was going to be a good race! I looked at my heart rate monitor, which had gone to sleep or lost it’s signal. Ugh with the unfamiliar equipment! I pushed all the buttons I could find on that watch, and prayed that something would tell me what my heart rate was. My entire plan for this race depended on me knowing exactly how close I was to my aerobic threshold, and not going over it. I’d tried to do it before in the past without a monitor, but the human feedback loop is a little slower than a watch, and it’s easy to go over the limit without a real number to look at. Still no signal and to top it off, I had no idea what my elapsed time was. Despite my technology woes, I thought I should probably concentrate on riding at this point. I took a sip of water, then settled into my low gear and spun at high cadence, visualizing that the hill was surmountable, and that I was on pace to finish in under an hour.

This technique worked quite well, as I found myself averaging 9.8mph and feeling good. I just had to conserve my energy and drink, I would tell myself, and take a swig from the bottle. I noticed that I wasn’t passing many people. Actually, people were passing me. Were we THAT far up in line that I wasn’t stuck behind the slower riders? Apparently so.

A mile later, I hit the watch buttons again, and the monitor sprung to life. I was relieved to see that my heart rate was well under max, and it confirmed that I was feeling good. So I increased my cadence and ramped my heart rate up to 168 bpm. My target for the race was right below 170, so that was perfect. Every now and then someone would pass me, but I would look at my heart rate and feel comfortable knowing that I didn’t need to keep up with them, I was going at my best pace. I almost felt too easy to keep at that level. But if I pushed it any harder, and went into anaerobic territory, then I would be wasting valuable energy that I needed to use for the second half of the course.

One third of the way through, and we hit the “break” which is a slight downhill section passing through a campgrounds called “Rock City” I pushed the speed and cadence up here, hoping to make up some time, but really, it’s such a short section that I doubt it makes much difference. drink gotta stay on that hydration schedule.

Halfway point
This was a water zone. I had planned to take an electrolyte tablet at this point (more steps to prevent cramping) and so figured it would be exciting to grab the paper cup of water from the volunteer’s hand as I sped by, kinda like a marathon. They make it look easy on TV, because I spilled half the water grabbing that thing. Then I popped my pill, took a swig, and threw the cup to the ground, because It was allowed. It still felt wrong to litter. I must have lost twenty seconds in time doing thiese acrobatics, ah well.

Two thirds of the way up, I came upon the familiar barber shop quartet singing “Hello, Mary Lou”. It’s a catchy tune, really, and I decided to snap my fingers in appreciation as I rode by. I got a wave back from the tenor, so iit was nice to connect with humanity amidst the emotional turmoil of it all. Where would I be without the barbershop quartet? Thee same thing happens everytime; the song gets in my head for a good mile or two until I can’t stand the tempo. I think at one point, I sang it aloud.

The second half
In this steeper section of the course, I would quite often find myself beyond 170 bpm, and so I’d have to mentally slow down to bring it back down. It was all about conserving, and drinking. drink There was a little bit of suffering, and still being passed by faster riders. At one point I heard someone say jokingly “Man, I just got passed by a girl!” and a corresponding “hey!!” as the speedy girl buzzed by me. I felt no shame of my own, as she surely wasn’t the first, and surely isn’t the last, girl to pass me. And I don’t even think her name was Shirley.

I even got passed by a guy on a full suspension mountain bike. WHAT? All that extra weight and he’s still smoking me? No. I resisted. We traded positions for a good mile, but I’m sure I lost position to him in the end, because I was watching my heart rate like a hawk. and drinking water drink . Plus he deserves any glory he gets for keeping up with people on lighter equipment than his.

At about 1 mile left to go, I got passed by a rider who gave a look, and I asked him how we were doing on time. He said “1:04”, and I thought to myself, oh. Well THAT’s not what I was expecting. It was a shock to me that I wasn’t doing any better than before. But I did feel good. Considerably better than previous years. But still, my TIME… oy vey, what does it take to conquer this mountain?? Anyways the guy said “Good job” and I said “yeah uh huh” .

I was in no position to worry about it, I was feeling good and just had to finish this race. So I drank again and wound out the rest of the course, and with about 500 meteres to the wall, I checked my water bottle, and sure enough it was empty. My hydration schedule worked just right, and I had no cramps.

Hitting the WALL
I had so much energy coming into the wall I didn’t know what to do with it. I caught a few people in this last section, and even coherently heard Alicia call out my name at the very top, which as you can see by the picture, did wonders to my mood.

My Official finish time was 1:08:56 with an average speed of 9.4 MPH, my best time ever, by about 30 seconds. I’m not super proud of it, but it is my best time, and for what felt like very little suffering…. But still very far off from the target. How am I ever going to trim off 9 minutes??

Data Analysis
Thankfully, the Cambiatta did it’s job and logged some data. The graph shows speed and cadence, but no heart rate data (bummer!) and it shows my progress through the race. I see that in the first half of the race, my cadence was very high, in the 85-90 rpm range, which is ideal, and my speed was just under 10mph. Then in the second half you can see my cadence varies a bit as the grade got tougher in spots. Then the speed is noticeably lower than 10mph. This is where I lost my time, and it’s an area where I always start to hurt.

But this time it didn’t really hurt, I was just afraid that it would, so I kept things in check, conserving for something that never happened. I never did use my anaerobic capacity, which is good for about 2-3 minutes at a time, and probably could have gotten me through some of those rough spots at a faster rate. I wasn’t willing to push myself to the limit for fear that I would cramp up, lose power, and fail again. It’s such a classic story of no pain, no gain, I feel stupid to admit it. But that’s what it felt like when it was over. I was as fresh as morning dew at the end, and wished there was about 1 more mile to take care of business. But there wasn’t, and I was saving myself for miles that never came.

2005 Mt. Diablo Challenge – Chapter 3

Who organizes this thing?
– by Alicia S.

If you have read Jeff’s entry about the Diablo Challenge, you will already know that being a volunteer for this race has some downsides. There are upsides, such as free Jamba Juice, but trust me, it’s not all fun.

I knew that this was Willis’s big race for the year, and supportive cycling girlfriend that I endeavor to be, I wanted to be there for him. And since they close the whole mountain down for the race, I also knew that working it was about the only way to see him cross the finish line. So I sent an email to the volunteer coordinator. She told me volunteers were always welcome, and that she’d put me town to “work the summit”. Groovy, I thought, it’s all set.

The logistics of race day were a little challenging. I was told I could park at the bottom (at the Athenian School) and get a ride to the top, but I’d need to be there early because the lot would be full by 6:30. Yes, a.m. I had absolutely no intention of being anywhere before 6:30am. So I decided to ride with Willis and Jeff from Willis’s mom’s house about 6 miles away. That way I could be in the biking spirit, plus not worry about parking. (Actually, I drove the car partway, because the Wong home is on top of a big hill. I thought maybe by the return trip, everybody would have had about enough of hills. This would prove to be a good call.)

We arrived at the race start about 40 minutes before the start. The guys took the opportunity to circle the parking lot and warm up, while I set out to figure out what I was supposed to do. First, it took a long time to find someone to drive me up the hill. At least three cars said they’d be “heading up soon”. Finally I got a ride from some very chatty gentleman who told me he used to ride the race until he got too old and fat. And offered me a muffin.

I finally arrived at “the summit”, only to find, again, no one who knew what was going on. Who was in charge? What needed to be done? There were several private groups setting up their booths, but no one seemed to know what to do with a volunteer. This would have been the time to keep my eyes peeled for others wearing the telltale “VOLUNTEER” T shirts, except that it was so chilly everyone was bundled in jackets. Finally I found the volunteer coordinator, who was having a minor meltdown over the location of the port-o-potties. She waved me in the direction of the guy with the timing equipment.

After another ten minutes of wandering around, I got a job. I was to keep track of the top winners in each category: top 3 men, women, mountain bikers, unicyclists, tandems, etc. I even got a clipboard. By this time, it was 8:30 and the top riders were only about ten minutes from the finish line. I took up my station and waited.

The very first riders came in with a time around 46 minutes. There was a dramatic sprint for the win as the leader got overtaken by #2 in just the last 20 punishingly steep feet of the race. Getting a primo view of that was probably the highlight of my volunteering experience. The rest was all work. And tough work, at that. Was #642 a man or a woman? I just couldn’t tell. Does a hybrid bike count as a mountain bike? And why doesn’t everybody have their number plainly out where it can be seen? Do I look psychic?

I kept my eyes peeled for Willis, and gave him a big cheer as he pumped across the line. There was not much time for congratulatory canoodling, though, because I had work to do. Finally the last unicyclists crossed the line, and my work was done. I met Willis and Jeff, who had by that time found Don, down in the party zone for snacks and swag. God bless Jamba Juice.

But then there was the problem of the descent. No one can head down the mountain until all the riders have made it up. They then release the cyclists in waves. And only after ALL the cyclists have gone can cars start heading down. This was a major pain in the ass. I’d scored a ride in the pace car for the trip down, but we didn’t even get to pull out until probably 40 minutes after Willis, Jeff and Don had headed down. And then, we had to crawl behind the sheriff, who was crawling behind the two slowest cyclists in history. Our speedometer literally read zero. Tensions began to rise. Finally, 20 minutes into this insanity, the sheriff’s van pulled up behind the offending bikers and told them to pull over and let us pass. (You wonder if they felt any pangs of guilt as 30+ cars sped by.) We all breathed a cranky sigh of relief.

Willis and Jeff practically had cobwebs growing over their bikes by the time I got to the bottom, and Don was no doubt wondering why we hadn’t met him at McDonalds as promised (mental note—cell phones might have been worth the weight). We were all hungry and tired, and I felt guilty for making everyone wait so long. However, we eventually got back to the car, and then into the shower, and then fed. And that was one of the best lunches ever.

So future notes: while it was fun to work the race and get to see all the riders finish, the logistics really discourage a person from wanting to volunteer twice. If I were to do this in the future, I’d have to find a way to have my bike at the top (a way which did not involve riding it there, because I am just not a hill climber) so I could ride down. But I’m glad I got to be there, and encourage Willis to his record breaking (sorta) time. But I’ll let him tell that story…

2005 Mt. Diablo Challenge – Chapter 2

Running Late
– by Don L.

The day didn’t start off exactly as planned. In other words, a typical day for me. I woke up late and took a quick look at the clock. A green 6:20 stared back at me through the dark. I didn’t have time to cook my Trader Joe’s oats on the stove because being unemployed I no longer eat the quick-cooking variety. Hmm.. so I decided to give the microwave option a try. Following the instructions on the package I punched in 2:00 and start and walked out of the kitchen to put on my favorite pair of Castelli’s and a jersey. *beep* ahh, smells like oatmeal… To my dismay, I opened the door to find the contents of the bowl exploded out of the plastic wrap and coated the interior of the oven in a smoking crust. OK, scratch that. No time to clean it either. Luckily I live one block from a McDonald’s and it just so happened that my sister had sent me out that week on a scavenger hunt for Happy Meal toys for her collection, so I elected to fuel up on a Hotcake breakfast. I used the entire syrup packet. More carbs. Satisfied, I glanced at the old geezers gabbing in the corner, got into my car and headed for the San Mateo bridge with my new Buzz Lightyear Happy Meal trinket sitting shotgun.

In a statement on how unavoidable fast food eateries are in our world, I’d already pre-arranged to park at a McDonald’s in Danville, ride in to meet Willis and Jeff, the other Wheely Cool people on the road, warm up my legs and then line up. I was still late though in spite of abandoning the mess in my kitchen and I missed the others. I also badly miscalculated how long the line for the port-a-potties at the starting line would be. Next time I’m using the McToilet. I stopped by the registration desk and took some safety pins for my bib. No sign of Willis or Jeff so I decided to strip and pin the number up myself. A race volunteer told me to put my shirt back on. O-kay whatever, lady. By the time I rode to the start, the queue for the race was stretched out past the little field where the registration desk was, and I took my position in the back of the pack.

People in the back were chatting and I looked around at the other riders. The guy next to me was on a brand new toothpaste green Burley racer, and a bunch of people wearing Peet’s coffee jerseys were in front of me. I’d explained to dinner company the night before my rationale for riding hill climb races. It certainly isn’t because I’m faster going uphill since I consider myself more of a flatlander, but it has more to do with my fear of crashing out in a criterium or road race at high speeds. In my experience, a steep hill keeps things calmer and the likelihood of being taken out in a wreck are minimal. Unless you’re standing next to a guy with a brand new toothpaste green bike who doesn’t know how to clip into his pedals, that is. Once we were rolling to the start I could tell he had no clue what he was doing – he put basically every part of his shoe over his pedal except the cleat and my whole world seemed to narrow down to watching this strange dance. After what seemed like forever, I ended up having to stop and stick out my arm to hold the guy up as he fell over. After we sorted ourselves out he rode away while I quietly cursed him and clipped myself back in. I rode past him and told him he owed me twenty bucks for keeping him off the pavement.

Luckily for me, after the crazy chaotic start I quickly settled into my spin and I was able to focus on maintaining a steady pace ignoring the faster riders passing me at the beginning. I noticed some people riding enormous unicycles up the hill. We can debate whether they have some sort of internal gearing mechanism a la Shimano Nexus in their hub or not – I think they must because those guys were able to ride faster than I thought a unicycle could go. I asked them if there were any jobs available at the circus and they didn’t know what I was talking about so I rode on. Being a middle of the pack rider, many people sped by me like I was standing still while I overtook others laboring on the grade. As the course flattened some near the Rock City area I stood up to gain speed and dropped some riders I had been shadowing for a few minutes. I remembered to eat and drink and kept a close watch on my heart rate. After the halfway point I rode down a little kid, maybe 12 years old. “I’m going to catch a draft off of you – with you doing all the work like this this will be my fastest time ever.” The kid stared back blankly and didn’t know what I was talking about so I rode on again and decided I had to stop chatting with the other riders. Nearing the top I dared to flip the display on my heart rate monitor to show me the time. A couple of months ago I had switched my race day goal from “not finish dead last” to a more reasonable finish in 1:30 or under. But in keeping with the theme of the day I was running late again, and had less time than I thought to reach the summit, so I pushed on and passed some people who jokingly accused me of sandbagging it, and psyched some other riders out by jettisoning my remaining water. “Jet planes dump their fuel before they crash land to prevent an inferno” I explained. The last 1000 ft of the climb are always the worst but I was able to withdraw some of the reserves I’d saved up lower on the course and I heard the announcement at the finish for the 1:30 mark so I think I made it. As I crossed the line I heard Willis say “hey that’s Don!” and we were joined in short order by Jeff and Alicia at the top for free Jamba Juices. In all, a great day to race. Yes, I was also late for all the other obligations I had lined up later that day, but none of those were races so who’s counting?

2005 Mt. Diablo Challenge – Chapter 1

Bowing My Head, Humbled

– by Jeff C.

This race being my first timed race, I was excited to line up that chilly morning with Willis and to see so many enthusiastic cyclists of all shapes and sizes. I thought I was ready, with my Bianchi and tuned brakes could get me up nearly any of the steepest hills in Pacific Heights (San Francisco). I’ve been taking my road bike about 2 times a week prior to the race. I chose not to carry any fix-it tools with me to help reduce weight, and I carried about 1/3 of a water bottle in fluids (salted Gatorade) because I figured that the volunteers would pass water to me during the race (they did).

I don’t remember hearing the starting bell sound, but I do remember the ominous clicks of so many cyclists around me signal the rolling start. I kept up with Wilis for the first kilometer or so, but it was difficult to maneuver with so many adjacent cyclists jockeying for position and finding their pace.

For the first 4 miles, I was panting the entire time, and I was already spent long before the Ranger station. I could say the warm-up 7-8 miles from Willis’ parents home, a little more than an hour ago, might’ve sapped my stored energy. Or maybe it was the 16 miles ride to my parents’ home from the downtown San Jose Caltrain station the day before. Either way, my body and mind were defeated and I was barely halfway up the mountain. I thought to myself, my heart is going to explode, so I stopped on mile 4 or 5. It did me good as I was able to tackle a few more hills. Then after what seemed to be the last of the winding trails that just goes “up”, another set of slopes appeared before me. I stopped again for 2-5 minutes, and took another rest, then another.  I counted 4 total stops toward the end (last 3 or so miles).  Then after about a pound or two of lost perspiration and non-stop internal dialogue (mostly cursing), I could see flags in the distance, and the final tower. Then I could see a lineup of people, waving me on which was probably the finish: the notorious “wall”. I think the fact that I didn’t want to walk my bike throughout any of the race, I just stopped before “the wall” for my fifth, and last break. After about 2 minutes, I clicked in, and set forward with my charge to the top, and I was up easily without a hitch. It was a surprisingly easy climb after I let my cardiovascular system pump that extra blood pump through my legs.
With a finishing time of 1h33m35s, I would say I’ve been humbled by Mount Diablo.
In hindsight: I think my pre-race diet could have been better. Drinking alcohol the night before, and the night before that may have affected my body a bit. All of that counts because – if you think you’re not prepared, you begin to think you are not. You begin to have doubts during the race; those crucial times when your heart rate is close to 300% resting rate for prolonged periods, and you feel like the change of altitude after each hill climb reminds you how much you value that new 12-27 cog set you had installed.
Good memories: The best-Jamba-juice I’ve ever had, at the finish line closing ceremony, was delicious and timely. The harrowing, and endless ride down the mountain with Willis, as a horse crossed the road, splitting the peloton up a bit. The 1+ hour wait for Alicia, and listening to her story of two thoughtless, chatting riders (of which the race crew was not allowed to pass) who held up the entire race crew as they chatted and pulled their brakes for the entire ride down. 
Will I come back next year? You bet. My goal will be under 1h23m. You heard it here….

2005 Mt. Diablo Challenge – Preface

I am very proud to report that Wheely Cool had an unprecedented number of participants this year on the mountain: 3 riders and 1 volunteer. Willis, Jeff and Don rode the mountain, while Alicia helped the organizers at the summit. This gives us several perspectives on the event, as you will soon read in multiple installments.
The Mt. Diablo Challenge is a timed bicycle race from the bottom to top, lasting 10.8 miles and climbing over 3000 feet, with close to 1000 entrants all huffing and puffing their way to the top, where they face a final 17% grade known as “the wall” at the finish.