Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Biking my first century at Hemet

Saturday marked a new experience for me as I biked my first century. A century is a bike race that covers at least 100 miles. Unlike a marathon which is always 26 miles, 385 yards for a runner, a century can be any distance between 100 and 200 miles (before it becomes a double century).

I primarily consider myself a runner, not a cyclist… although I’ve had a long connection with cycling. I got a 10-speed as a teenager and enjoyed biking up and down the hills of my neighborhood. My first job in life at the ripe old age of 16 was working as the bike mechanic at Sears and Roebuck. In college, I bought a friend’s old 12-speed Schwinn road bike and used it off and on for the next 18 years… although rarely biking over 10 miles at any one time.

In 2004, I started biking back and forth to work as a form of cross-training exercise to help my running and to save money on gas. Even though I was on this old dilapidated Schwinn, it didn’t take me long to get hooked on cycling. Soon I was thrilled to locate a good used Specialized Allez road bike and I bought it. I bought a few new parts for it off of eBay, and I had myself a very good road bike.

I started biking back and forth to work 2 or 3 times a week. It’s a 10-mile route, but fortunately it’s almost entirely downhill on the way to work. I can bike to work in the morning and not even break a sweat. Now the ride home is a whole other matter. It’s a 10-mile non-stop climb up several long, steep grades. There are three different routes I could take, but each of them includes a one- or two-mile climb at around 10%. It’s a great exhilarating workout at the end of the day.

In February 2005, I started logging some more miles and did my first half century, the Tour de Palm Springs. It was supposed to be 55 miles, but one of the turns was mismarked and I ended up biking an unexpected 61-mile route. It was my first organized bike event and it was a blast. Tucking into the back of a paceline was an amazing experience as the riders in the front blocked the wind. For me, the ride ended anticlimactically as we all rolled into the finish without a frantic race to the line. This was a ride, not a race. The ending seemed a little odd since I’m used to pushing myself to the max in the final stretches of a running race.

Building off of my experience at the TdPS, I did the California Half Ironman triathlon in May which included a 56-mile road bike race through Camp Pendelton. This was a weird experience because you’re not allowed to draft in a triathlon so it was purely a solo effort. The conditions were poor as we were pelted with rain for the entire ride. We had to be very carefully as we raced downhill and around corners. The ride went well and included some serious hills including a long, steep 14% climb over 30 miles into the ride. The ride felt great as I came to the finish of that leg.

That summer, I brought my road bike to Colorado as we spent two weeks visiting family there. After acclimating to the high altitude for about a week, I took my road bike over to Idaho Springs to conquer Mount Evans. Mount Evans is the highest paved road in the world. For 29 miles, it ascends 7000’ up to a parking lot at 14,130’ just below the summit. Fortunately, the grade isn’t terribly steep for most of the climb since it averages about 4-5%. Still, it’s a seemingly endless climb into the clouds and the rarified air of 14,000’. To make sure I could make it all the way to the top, I swapped my 11-23 cogs out for a set of 12-27. Along with my triple chainring up front, I could gear down as low as 32-27 (1.11%, that is, 1.11 turn of the wheels for each complete pedal stroke). I knew I would need that low gearing since the air pressure at 14,000’ is only 56% of that at sea level.

The ride went great. Nearly half the ride is above treeline with majestic sweeping views of mountainous peaks for miles and miles. It was a long, slow climb to the top but I made it. I wasn’t the fastest cyclist on the mountain that day since many others were out there training for the upcoming Mount Evans Bike Race a week later. I wasn’t the slowest cyclist on the climb either. I can actually say there were more cyclists on the road that day than cars… something I wasn’t expecting.

Reaching the top of the mountain was such a relief. It seemed surreal. I took off my cycling shoes and hiked the remaining 100’ to the true summit. I sat on the peak and ate my lunch and traced the road I had just climbed in the distance. As I was packing up to leave, I got to see several of the white mountain goats that are famous for being on Mount Evans. Beautiful animals.

The descent back down to Idaho Springs was not as fun as I had expected. I thought I would go flying down the mountain with little or no effort. Instead, it was a harrowing descent as I would get blasted by crosswinds around each bend of the road. Finally, when I reached treeline, the winds weren’t as direct and I could descend more easily. The bike ride up Mount Evans is an absolute classic. It is worth the effort of every pedal stroke to make it to the top.

After my ascent of Mount Evans in July 2005, I stopped cycling as I concentrated on running. Throughout the summer and fall, I was training hard to qualify for the Boston Marathon at the St. George Marathon on October 1st. It all worked out and I ran a personal best 3:11:50 at St. George to qualify for Boston after running marathons for ten years.

Throughout the fall and winter, I didn’t bike much as my focus continued to be on running as I trained for Boston in April 2006. But unfortunately in February, I suffered a hip flexor injury which thwarted my running and ended my plans for Boston this April. To try to maintain my fitness level, I resumed biking. Unfortunately though, I encountered a number of mechanical problems. One Saturday I tried biking on the Santa Ana bike trail to/from the beach, but the ride was ruined by having 3 consecutive flat tires. Ugh. About a week later, my chain broke and destroyed my front deraileur. It took about a week to get that all fixed.

With only two weeks to go before the Hemet Century, I finally had my bike back in good working condition. I started logging some serious miles in the saddle. In those last two weeks, I had three good 40-mile rides (one of which included 3 serious climbs at 12%) and one great 70-mile ride.

I had decided to bike the Hemet Century on April 8 as my first century for several reasons. One, it was close to home (only 30 miles away). Several of the roads on the century route I actually use to bike to/from work. Two, it didn’t have a huge amount of elevation gain… only 2200’. I like climbing hills on my bike, but for my first century, I preferred to do something less challenging. One hundred miles alone would be challenging enough without the need of some long climbs. Three, it was in April the week before the Boston Marathon. Doing a century the week before Boston soothed my spirit for having to miss the marathon for which I had worked so hard.

I had the extra benefit of having a good friend bike this century with me. He’s a strong cyclist who is in serious training for an Ironman. I didn’t want to slow him down since I basically was attempting this century on only two weeks of training so I told him to bike his own pace and I would try to stay with him if I could. Since I had never gone farther than 70 miles, I wasn’t sure how I’d be doing in the last third of the race. I wanted to finish strong, but I wasn’t sure if my legs would let me.

The race was actually a double century comprised of a 105-mile first loop and a 109-mile second loop. My biking friend and I were only going to do the first loop from Hemet through Riverside, Corona, Lake Elsinore, and back up to Hemet. Since we didn’t bring lights, we started about 6:30am at sunrise. We quickly jumped into a paceline that was keeping a good pace (19mph?) on the flat roads leading out from Hemet. We climbed the hill on Ramona Expressway near Lake Perris at a good strong pace and rolled into our first SAG stop about ten miles later. Next we headed towards Riverside. In Mission Grove, we began our fast descent down Alessandro to Victoria Ave. Traffic was light early on that Saturday morning so five of us together were flying effortlessly down the steep hill. My speedometer at one point read 43mph. Then we turned onto Victoria Ave to bike through Orange Groves and on down into Corona.

Biking down Temescal Canyon Road was a harrowing experience. The road is narrow without much shoulder and heavy traffic roars by quite quickly. It’s a long stretch of road with quite a few rolling hills to tax the legs. There were three of us now biking together as we took turns pulling up front in the wind.

After we had arrived in Lake Elsinore, we knew there would be climbing involved to get back up to Hemet. We were now 70 miles into the ride. I was thinking to myself, this is now uncharted waters for me since I’ve never been this far on a bike. Fortunately, the climbs up from Lake Elsinore were not nearly as long or steep as I had anticipated. Soon we had arrived back into the flat lands that lead back to Hemet. We made our third SAG stop and fueled up for the final leg.

The roads were now relatively flat for the final 25 miles into Hemet, but we were encountering more and more headwinds. There were three of us making our way together at this point in the ride, myself, my biking friend, and another cyclist who had hooked up with us. We tried to take turns up at the front of our 3-man paceline, but my biking friend is such a strong cyclist that it was all I could do to hang on and keep up with him. He ended up pulling some monster pulls at a fast pace most of the last leg of the century. I was maxing myself out just trying to hang on his rear wheel. Even though I was struggling to keep up, I knew it would have been a much harder struggle to finish alone if I let him get away.

The final miles down Warren Road was a miserable way to finish a century. The road is extremely broken up and the traffic was heavy. Also we ended up caught behind a group of slower cyclists that we couldn’t pass because of the vehicular traffic. Finally, a break came and my biking friend took off to pass them all. My quads were screaming as I pedaled with all that was left in me to keep up. We made it across the group and had open roads ahead. We didn’t slow down in those final miles, in fact, we logged some of our strongest miles of the day in that last stretch. It felt good to finish so strong.

We logged in at the finish and found that we had completed the 105-mile course in 6:03. Excluding the SAG stops (where we took our time), our actually biking time was 5:37 (or 18.7 mph). I was very, very pleased with that time… especially since this was my first century and I did it on such a minimal amount of training. I thanked my friend endlessly for making such long pulls in the wind and apologized for not being able to do more of the work out front. I wasn’t trying to exploit him as a stronger cyclist. It’s just that he’s such a strong cyclist that I simply couldn’t get in front to help out much. He didn’t seem to mind much since he was using this century as a solid training ride for his upcoming Ironman (in which he has to bike 112 miles solo without drafting). He biked strong to the end and then threw on his running shoes and did a 2-mile run to make it a good "brick" for his triathlon training.

The Hemet Century was a great one. Most of the riders (60-70%??) actually did the double century of 214 miles. To me, going that far on a bike is staggering, but I guess with enough training and keeping the right pace, it is doable… just not for me right now.

We had perfect weather for Hemet. There was only a minimal amount of wind, and the temperatures never exceeded 70. The ride was a lot of fun because most of my cycling in training is done solo. Riding in a paceline with other cyclists is an amazing experience. It’s also a lot of fun because there can great camaraderie among cyclists. We’re all out there for the long haul and we spend a lot of the time chatting about life.

I look forward to doing more centuries in the future. Running is still my primary sport, but I can easily see if there comes a day when running is too hard on my body, cycling would be a nice alternative